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if you loathe junk telephone calls, take your blood pressure pills before reading this

panopticon prison surveillance

By Simon Davies

Last week the UK telecoms regulator Ofcom published some helpful advice  aimed at the millions of British consumers who are plagued by unwelcome marketing calls.

I was so excited to see this. Almost every call to my landline now comes from an automated dialler machine, offering me one or other deal to reduce my debt, or increase my credit. Sometimes there are a dozen or more a day.

Ofcom’s advice begins on an empathetic note:  “Rushing to answer the phone only to find it’s another call centre trying to sell you something you don’t want can be frustrating and annoying.”

complaining to the ICO will have roughly the same effect as slapping an oil tanker with a wet kipper

Hooray! We finally have a regular that understands our problems – and apparently the solution to this blight is disarmingly simple. You merely register with the “Do Not Call” list on the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) and complain to that body If after a month you continue to receive unwelcome calls. If that course of action fails you (or more likely the TPS) can then complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – an organisation that Ofcom extols as a champion of the people.

All sorted – except that anyone who has tried either route will already be seeing red. For starters, registering on TPS won’t prevent junk calls. Second, complaining to the ICO will have roughly the same effect as slapping an oil tanker with a wet kipper. Finally, Ofcom and its predecessor Oftel are the reason why we have this problem in the first place.

On this vexing topic I’m afraid neither the TPS nor the ICO are fit for purpose. Junk telephone calls are a Wild West territory over which no-one wants to assume authority. Even worse, the industry is now moving swiftly from landlines to the mobile spectrum. In response both regulators have engaged in a pre-planned “pass the parcel” exercise, just as they have for the past twenty years.

In the current regulatory climate there is little or nothing that can be done to stop the junk call pestilence. Adding your number to TPS doesn’t work because many of the most aggressive companies buy its list so they can access numbers that are not published in the phone directories. TPS proves the old saying that locks are there only to keep honest people out.

Consumers are in a no-win position. Even though TPS is functionally defective, the ICO has historically taken the position that a customer’s failure to register withe the TPS constitutes consent to receive marketing calls

Junk telephone calls are a Wild West territory over which no-one wants to assume authority. Even worse, the industry is now moving swiftly from landlines to the mobile spectrum

The finger of blame for this situation should be pointed directly at ambivalent regulators. Ofcom and Oftel caved in years ago to commercial interests by ruling out issues of principle on junk calls. They were quite blunt about that decision back then, drawing an arbitrary link between junk calls and door-to-door selling. Thus Ofcom permits the use of auto diallers even for unsolicited calls. Only in instances of “persistent misuse” does the regulator take action

Ofcom is fond of taking moral succour from the ICO which years ago decided that phone numbers are not personal information. That position may have been tenable 20 years ago, but not now. Cheap and readily available technology can be loaded with lists of thousands of numbers which are then constantly called until a connection is made. These lists are built from purchasing and lifestyle information compiled from a variety of sources.

This isn’t a legitimate industry: it’s a Denial of Service attack on the entire national phone network.

This isn’t a legitimate industry: it’s a Denial of Service attack on the entire national phone network. And yet regulators have taken the view that commercial entities have a right to intrude in whatever way they wish on phone lines that we pay for.

The regulators are failing in their duty even within the ambit of the TPS. Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), which are enforced by the ICO, marketing telephone calls cannot be made where a number is listed with the TPS. End of story.

Like all regulations however the real test is in the enforcement, so let’s look at some hard figures.

PECR has been in operation for around nine years. The ICO tells us that in the past three years it has received around 2,000 complaints about breaches of PECR. I can’t find a definitive figure for the past nine years, but 5,000 complaints seems to be as accurate an estimate as anyone can deduce.

the most telling figure relates to enforcement activity in the past two years. Not a single organisation has been reprimanded. This, despite 1,500 complaints during that period.

The ICO goes on to explain: “Our aim is to ensure that the organisation responsible for the calls complies with the law. Where we receive a number of complaints about an organisation, and it is clear they are not complying with the Regulations, we can take formal action to make them comply.”

I was surprised to then learn that since PECR came into effect the ICO has reached formal undertakings with 8 organisations, and served 9 enforcement notices against organisations for breaches of PECR. Neither of these measures is a prosecution – they are more of a naming and shaming exercise by the ICO.

There is some duplication in the ICO figures. Over nine years a total or 16 organisations have been served with notices.

However the most telling figure relates to enforcement activity in the past two years. Not a single organisation has been reprimanded. This, despite 1,500 complaints during that period.

In short, Ofcom and the ICO have established a framework for limitless intrusion by commercial organisations, forcing us to either endure this menace, or on every occasion to spend our precious time working through a system that may or may not speciously remove our number from its list. The information commissioner says our numbers are not private, and the telecoms regulator agrees.