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You think spam techniques are driving you mad now... just take a look at what's in store.
Written by Oliver Descoeudres, Contributor

commentary You think spam techniques are driving you mad now... just take a look at what's in store.
Does the Liberal's Party's practice of phoning voters with a "vote-for-me" recorded message signal a new era of push-marketing? It's not a new technology, but one that fortunately hasn't been adopted by any mainstream company or organisation -- until the recent election.

It was reported that some of the Liberal Party calls were routed via servers within the US.

Ironically, regulations in the US have banned calls using artificial or pre-recorded voice messages since 1991 as a result of the volume of complaints. (And the death of a man who suffered a heart attack shortly after his wife received a pre-recorded message selling health insurance. She had already hung up, but when she picked up the phone to call 911, the pre-recorded call hadn't disconnected. Her husband died before she was able to dial 911.)

Although the US does permit pre-recorded calls to businesses -- and non-commercial calls (including calls by, or on behalf of, tax-exempt non-profit organisations) -- it does have legislation that regulates all forms of telemarketing. Australia's approach has been a self-regulation model that enables telemarketing or pre-recorded calls to be made to anyone, with voluntary adherence to a "do not call list". (A regulated approach would introduce a national "do not call" register with penalties for any breaches. The Australian Labor Party announced its plan to support a legislated do not call list to stamp out unwanted telemarketing calls during the recent election campaign. Not surprisingly, the Australian Privacy Foundation reports the Liberal's policy as being "seriously privacy-unfriendly, with no plans to improve existing privacy safeguards or prevent the erosion of privacy rights".

Today -- if you discount the flurry of articles condemning or defending the Liberals' election phone spam -- there isn't much information available on the volume of pre-recorded phone calls, or even telemarketing in Australia. No one appreciates being interrupted by a telemarketing call, but it hasn't reached the same volume as in the US, or as e-mail spam, which continues to increase.

SMS spam is another potential area of aggravation, and was expected to be the next problem area as it is in Japan and the UK. In mid-2004, SMS messages were sent at a rate of 500 billion per annum generating more than AU$50 billion in revenue for telcos and representing almost 100 messages for every person in the world. However, SMS marketing is covered by the Spam Act 2003 which makes it illegal to send unsolicited commercial electronic messages. There's also the cost of sending an SMS message, similar to that of a phone call, which makes it far less attractive than e-mail.

A recent article in New Scientist warned that the next menace will be Spit -- "SPam on Internet Telephony". It's the new term for voicemail solicitations that some predict that have the potential to deluge Web-based phone networks. Simulation run by US company Qovia demonstrates that a computer could be programmed to send 1000 messages per minute over VoIP. A voice version of denial of service attacks could tie up phone lines with repeated automated phone calls, thanks to the significantly lower costs of sending VoIP calls.

Maybe the answer to spam is to turn the tools against spammers -- China's new police tactic in 2003 was to spam people who illegally posted advertisements or stickers. The wrongdoer's mobile phones are sent a pre-recorded message every 20 seconds: "You have broken the law by posting illegal ads. You must immediately stop this activity and go to the Hangzhou Urban Administrative Bureau for punishment".

On the other hand, for all the potential problems of voice or SMS spam, the reality is that we're willingly texting and phoning companies that would normally be harassing us -- Australian Idol, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In fact, reality TV shows have millions of Australians ringing premium 1900 numbers or texting at their own cost. Anecdotal evidence says that some of these TV shows are effectively funded by revenue from these calls and SMS messages. And though the Liberal Party wasn't after SMS messages, it still seems to have gotten the votes!

Oliver Descoeudres is marketing manager at network IP/Internet network infrastructure builder and solutions provider NetStar Australia. He can be contacted at marketing@netstarnetworks.com or on 02 9805 9759.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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