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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com. Uploaded on: 30 September 2010.
The fall-out from the recent ban of bulk SMS in India serves as a dramatic reminder about just how entrenched those 160 characters have become in the daily lives of both people and businesses the world over.
When the Indian government banned application to person SMS messaging, people
immediately stopped receiving notifications that transactions had taken place
on their bank accounts. Railway ticket confirmations and schedule changes
simply weren’t delivered. Equity traders were cut off from the information
lifeline that is their business. Companies needed to rely on other, less
immediate and less mobile, channels of communication to be alerted to problems
on their servers.
The ban was put in place in advance of a ruling in the controversial Ayodhya
land dispute. In 1992 a Hindu group destroyed the 16th century Babri Mosque,
believing it was built on the birthplace of Hindu god, Ram. This led to violent
clashes between Muslims and Hindus. An Indian court is set to rule imminently
on whether plans to build a Hindu temple on the site can go ahead, and the
Indian government, fearing further violence, banned bulk SMSs in the country in
an attempt to cut communication between religious extremists on both sides who
may want to provoke a violent protest.
Similarly, closer to home, the Mozambican government shut down SMS for a period
during the recent food riots in that country, in an attempt to muzzle the
public which were coordinating the violent demonstrations using SMS.
After lobbying from the network operators and the Indian Reserve Bank, the
Indian Department of Telecom (DoT) later relaxed the ban to exclude transaction
messages and network performance notifiers sent directly by the operators. The
network operators have been warned they will be responsible for any content
sent over their network and that the SMS ban still applies to messages sent via
third party aggregators, or WASPs (wireless application service providers).
This decision is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, because many
transaction-based messages are sent via aggregators, and it’s impossible to
distinguish between these messages and others. The new ruling hasn’t done much
to alleviate the situation.
In addition, the network operators are unhappy that they will be responsible
for the content of messages that they didn’t originate and are merely
delivering on behalf of the sender. Also, media reports say the operators stand
to lose up to Rs 10 crore ($2.2 million) a week from lost revenue because the
aggregators will not be buying bulk SMS capacity from them.
And finally, this doesn’t even seem to be an effective way to prevent the
public from communicating and coordinating civil unrest, as person to person
SMS is still available.
At the moment, the verdict on the court case has been postponed and it’s
unclear for how long the bulk SMS ban will be in place. In the meantime Indian
businesses are losing money and the Indian people are at risk of fraud. (You
can be sure criminals are rubbing their hands together in glee at this
opportunity to bypass one of the most effective banking security measures: SMS
If indeed we needed a reminder about how entrenched SMS is in our daily lives,
this is certainly it. If something similar had happened in South Africa, online
banking would be effectively crippled. Without one-time passwords (OTP) sent
via SMS we would be unable to add or pay recipients. We wouldn’t know if our
accounts were being accessed without authorisation, or if our credit cards had
been cloned or stolen and then used by criminals. Medical, security and
educational initiatives that rely on SMS as being the best way to reach their
communities would be hamstrung. Not to mention the less “serious” but still
useful services we have come to rely on, from weather reports on the go, to
reminders of doctors’ appointments.
It’s also clear to what extent SMS plays a role in the democratisation of
information. With a straightforward SMS-enabled cell phone, citizens can
publish information to large groups, and even the world, at the press of a
button. We’ve seen the impact of social media in undermining governments’
attempts to control or hide information – this is becoming an increasingly
difficult thing for governments to do without serious consequences. Take a look
at a service such as Ushahidi.com, which crowd sources crisis information from
people on the ground via SMS, email and the Web, to form detailed pictures of
what is going on in crisis situations ranging from political unrest to natural
While the Indian government’s intentions behind the ban were well meaning, this
somewhat kneejerk response may very well do more damage than good. But it
certainly does highlight the extent to which SMS has become part of our
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