Bill to Ban Mobile Spam Bypasses CAN-SPAM Act

With unsolicited commercial SMS messages increasing 30 percent over the past year, two U.S. Senators have introduced legislation that would prohibit commercial text messages to wireless numbers listed on the national Do-Not-Call registry.

“Mobile spam invades both a consumer’s cell phone and monthly bill,” said Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, in a statement, last week. She co-sponsored the measure with Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.

The number of text messages sent from consumers and commercial or advertising sources continues to rise. With it, spam or unwanted SMS also increased in the past year: 16.2 million people reported receiving an unsolicited commercial SMS in February 2009, up from 12.5 million in February 2008, an 30 percent increase on a year, according to comScore.

“This is something that we’ve been tracking now for a couple of years in the context of understanding what kind of messages people receive,” Mark Donovan, chief marketing officer and senior analyst of comScore’s mobile group, told ClickZ.

While the CAN-SPAM Act, a measure that went into effect in 2004, addresses unsolicited e-mail, the latest efforts to curb mobile spam are taking another approach.

“A policy often gets introduced as much for the attention value as much for anything else,” Donovan said. If the proposal were to amend CAN-SPAM, he said, the issue wouldn’t be put in the spotlight in the same way.

For some mobile phone subscribers, mobile spam carries a real cost versus a less tangible cost of e-mail spam. Consumers can subscribe to a flat-rate mobile text plan, but many pay for each text message sent and received. Donovan also sees mobile as a more personal platform. “People are more protective of their mobile phone inbox than their e-mail inbox. Getting spam on the mobile phone becomes more intrusive than e-mail spam,” he said.

Industry organizations including the Mobile Marketing Association and the CTIA have worked with the government to remain ahead of the legislation and self-regulate industry. The MMA regularly updates its code of conduct and releases best practice papers. In those papers and as part of its membership, the MMA enforces opt-in guidelines and has a no-tolerance on unwanted messaging. The Internet Advertising Bureau also has a mobile working group. At this time, the IAB is still reviewing the proposed legislation with its members and declined to comment at this time about the proposed law.

How important is it for the government and other bodies to get involved? “It’s a big deal insofar that mobile advertising and marketing are showing good results. But it’s still not baked into the spend. We don’t want to see the channel get distorted while it’s still growing,” Donovan said. “You don’t want to see the channel maligned because of a few bad apples.”

Specific details on how m-spam will be added to the Do-Not-Call-Registry were not explained in the statement provided by Senators Snowe and Nelson. It is likely consumers would be able to add their mobile phone numbers to block phone calls and text messages.

Under a Do-Not-Call Registry maintained by the FTC since 2003, consumers can sign up to avoid getting unsolicited voice calls on their home and mobile phones.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, a related bill was submitted last month by Rep. Phil Gingrey, Republican of Georgia. That measure is called, “Stop M-Spam Abuse as a Sales Industry Habit Act of 2009,” or the SMASH Act of 2009. His bill would also prohibit unsolicited commercial text messages from being sent to cell phone numbers listed on the national Do-Not-Call registry.

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