Irritating invasions

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Nuisance, theft, shameless profiteering, and repeated violations of the constitution of Pakistan may read like the rap sheet for our wayward government but not this week. We may also have an invasion on our hands but for once it’s not trigger happy Taliban commandos coming over our borders either. The new irritant comes courtesy of the dark side of our telecom industry.

If you are one of approximately 100 million phone users enjoying cheap calls in Pakistan, you too may be fuming over unsolicited offers for goods and services received via text message. But not half as much as one columnist who finds himself up against the pitfalls of proliferating cellular technology in Pakistan.

There was a time one could entertain the notion of having someone come round and clean the water tank, or getting an exciting wedding package with food, or tuitions, or even a free interior design consultancy. That time has just about run out. With the frequency and volume of texted ads on the rise, and an increasing amount of man hours wasted on reading and then deleting them, perhaps it is time we put an end to the nuisance these messages create.

With mobile phones swiftly being written into the DNA of Pakistanis, the numbers we can be contacted on become very sensitive bits of information. Within our offices and homes, they are an integral part of our physical presence and communication with others. Yet this personal information is made available to a number of shady marketing companies that have been bombarding consumers with unwanted text messages for the past few years. So which of these makes us more uncomfortable? Not knowing how it got into their hands, or knowing that one is so easily accessible by many.

Was it the business card casually dropped into the glass bowl of a restaurant, or the unscrupulous phone company selling customer details to the highest bidder? The fact remains that our privacy – protected as a fundamental right in our Constitution – is inviolable. So it’s difficult to see how fine print in some operator service contract will stand up to the touchstone of all our laws.

Wisdom would dictate that when you invite a person into your house to use the staircase, you do not invite him to slide down the banisters. So why are telecommunication and marketing outfits hell bent on hosting a rave at our expense? When we sign up for a cellular service, we do not sign up to participate in an advertising blitz. As these companies are more interested in the business of trading personal information for profit, one can’t help but feel at once cheated out of a decent earner and violated by their collusion.

So this may be considered fair warning to these advertising racketeers: your actions are pushing one peace loving columnist to a point where he is compelled to sic a trigger happy Taliban commando on you. If need be, less drastic legal options can also be employed for less drastic results. And multiple courses of action appear to be available for anyone who may be similarly inclined to adopt legal recourse. One could, in the first instance, approach our apex regulator – the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority – to complain of these nefarious practices. Or one may prefer to file a writ petition against the violation of fundamental rights of citizens. Alternatively, one could even move the consumer court for action against errant service providers. While one is predisposed to spend a good deal of time analysing the advantages and disadvantages of each option, the continued invasion of privacy by marketing companies is shortening that time with every text message sent and received.

One’s sincerity in pursuing this cause may be tested by the two promises this columnist makes to readers. The first is that next week’s column will also focus on our telecom sector but will look into the institutional and regulatory dimensions of its success. The second is that if these text messages continue to violate our privacy, then one will be forced to take action against the next unfortunate person trying to flog his wares on a mobile phone. The latter is not just a promise; it is a more of a threat. As action against the infringements on our liberties now lies entirely in the hands of our telecom industry and the marketing companies, perhaps they could try to be a bit more responsible for the next seven days.

 

The writer is a consultant on public policy.