India moves to silence cell spam

In February, the Supreme Court asked the government to take steps to protect cell users from unsolicited calls.

Harsh Pathak was thrilled to get a cellphone. The young corporate lawyer could stay in touch with friends and family while on the move. And he found it easier to schedule meetings.

Then he started getting calls from a lot of people he did not know. His number, it turns out, had been acquired by telemarketers - thanks to a highly organized network devoted to collecting personal information - who peppered him with calls. Banks wanted him to take out loans. Insurers wanted to send out sales representatives. Ironically, even cellphone companies called, asking him to switch to their service.

"They would call in the middle of a meeting when you were trying to explain something to someone," he says. "Then, after the call, you lost your thought and had to start explaining the thing all over again." What made these intrusions even more irritating were the steep "roaming" charges he incurred for receiving calls outside his local network.

As India's economy booms, the rising ranks of cellphone users find it hard to enjoy something already rare in this country of 1 billion people: privacy. But that may change after a landmark action by the Supreme Court in February, based on a complaint Mr. Pathak filed.

That court asked the government and a clutch of major telephone companies and financial institutions named as defendants in the suit to take steps to protect cellphone users from unsolicited calls. The suit called for a new law and asked that financial institutions and telephone companies protect their clients from an "endemic invasion of privacy." In his petition, Pathak suggested that India consider adopting privacy-protection measures similar to those in other countries, including the federal do-not-call registry in the United States.

The Supreme Court can only advise the government on the need for legislation, but India's parliament responds often to these requests. Before it can, however, the government agencies and private parties named as defendants will have to provide an official response to the Supreme Court. That means a cellphone privacy law is at least two years away. For now, though, the court's action is compelling executives to consider the consequences of actions that have long been a standard practice in the financial-services industry.

According to Vivek Tankha, the attorney who argued the case for Pathak, one defendant, a cellphone service provider, has placed full-page ads in newspapers assuring customers that it would help them to block unwanted calls.

"I have never been thanked so much in my life as I have for this case," he says.

Cellphone companies say they support customer privacy. The Cellular Operators' Association of India said it is "in full support of the Supreme Court's notice and will offer all cooperation."

The case received major media coverage in one of the world's fastest-growing cellphone markets, where unwanted calls and text messages are a nuisance for tens of millions of subscribers.

Cellphone users here in India's capital say the number of calls from telemarketers has fallen a bit during the past year to about two or three a week.

But Reva Singh, a magazine editor, still finds them "inexcusable."

"I don't know who gives them the right to claim my time," she says, adding that she felt "obliged to listen and be polite" before saying no to sales pitches.

In the absence of a law, privacy advocates say, there can be no effective controls on telemarketers. Cellphone users risk having their numbers leaked from the moment they sign up with a provider.

Banks deny that they share information about clients, yet they can hardly be accused of going out of their way to protect privacy. One of Mr. Tankha's encounters with a sales agent reveals just how serious this problem can be.

"I was shocked when I got calls from a company stating that I should invest in mutual funds, as I had excess funds in my bank account," he says.

Some users don't allow themselves to get upset by the calls. "I'm sort of indifferent, but I try to be polite," says Gitanjali Sethi, a law student. "I'm not going to buy anything over the phone."

Ms. Sethi knows a thing or two about telemarketers, having worked for one part-time. She says numbers are culled from forms filled out by customers.

For example, someone opening a bank account provides a lot of personal information. Often, there is a box the person can check so as not to receive sales calls and promotions by mail. "But this is not always mentioned or displayed prominently."

She says even "respected companies" share information with one another. Businesses with complementary products - such as a cellphone service provider and a cellphone maker - often do this, because both firms gain from reaching each other's clients.

Stopping such practices will require a huge effort, even with the Supreme Court's backing, and even if India adopts a law, acknowledge Pathak and Tankha. But for now, they are happy that the top court has set the ball rolling.

"At least the debate has started," said Tankha. "Once we start a debate, the solutions also start to emerge."

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