WhatsApp? Unwanted Messages are Back
Fettered by rules on bulk SMSes, telemarketers find a new avenue to reach out to the public
On a Thursday morning this month, Nikhil Maggu, a 26-year-old technical lead at a software company in Gurgaon, received a message offering him 50% off on food and drinks in about 200 restaurants. A month ago, he got a discount offer from a local spa.
It was all too familiar — the kind of annoying messages that spammed mobile phone inboxes before the rules were introduced to regulate telemarketing. This time though the medium was different. They came on WhatsApp, the popular messaging application. The rules that apply to unwanted marketing calls and SMSes don’t apply on the messages sent on WhatsApp. The social media is largely unregulated, and some little-known telemarketers are using this regulatory vacuum to sell services that allow their customers to send hundreds and thousands of messages to WhatsApp users.
“It’s a new concept, but it’s a nuisance,” Maggu said, adding that he started getting such messages on WhatsApp three months ago.
West Delhi-based Elion Technologies & Consulting is featured on a few online business-listing websites as a provider of bulk messages on WhatsApp. A company representative said customers can opt for plans starting from 10,000 messages costing 30 paise each plus taxes. There’s a discount for larger orders. For instance, an order for a million messages to WhatsApp users costs 22 paise a piece, and the buyer has one full year to exhaust the inventory. The company provides potential customers a trial run: register on its website, WhatsAppU.com, and get 25 credits to test the service. It also sells video and audio messages, as well as virtual visiting cards, for a higher fee. The messages can be sent in bulk via computer. Sending unsolicited messages in bulk is a violation of WhatsApp’s terms of service and those doing so can be banned from using it, a WhatsApp spokesperson said. “We have already taken legal action against many companies that... try to send unsolicited messages to our users.” The spokesperson didn’t say whether WhatsApp has encountered violators of its rules in India, or what legal action it has taken so far. Elion Technologies and Ozone SMS, a reseller of bulk messages that it sources from Elion Technologies, did not respond to an e-mailed question on whether WhatsApp contacted them over any such issues. Although Whatsapp users can block numbers that send such messages, there isn’t any spam quarantine facility unlike most email services There are companies abroad which provide similar bulk messaging services. According to a consultant tracking the social media sector, sending bulk messages on WhatsApp doesn’t violate any law in India, and it is up to the messaging platform to decide what to do with them. WhatsApp is hugely popular in India and is still expanding fast. In February, chief executive Jan Koum told ET that it had around 40 million active users in the country. Although Telecom industry executives said the marketers were taking the unregulated overthe-top (OTT) route since sending unsolicited messages on telecom networks is prohibited by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). Since 2011, such promotional messages could be sent only to those who have opted for them and between 9 am and 9 pm. Phone users calls can opt for the “Do Not Disturb” facility to prevent telemarketers from contacting them. Violation of the rules would invite heavy penalties, including blacklisting of the sender for two years.