Advertising is occasionally useful, but usually annoying. Of course, if you decide to watch a commercial TV channel or browse a sponsored website, then you are choosing to put up with whatever the advertisers throw at you.
Cold calling and junk mail are in a different category. Entirely unsolicited, these are organised invasions of our privacy, a commercialised violation of the home.
Successive governments should have done a lot more to protect us – and, not before time, the current government is cracking down. Mark Tran in the Guardian reports on this welcome development:
“Millions of… unsolicited [text] messages, many of them illegal, are sent every day; just as many calls are made about payment protection insurance (PPI) compensation and solar panelling. Trying to stem the tide of nuisance texts and phone calls may seem impossible, but the government is trying.
“From Monday, it will be easier for a government watchdog to crack down on companies that plague householders with unsolicited or nuisance phone calls and texts, with fines of up to £500,000.”
In theory, protections like the Telephone Preference Service have been in place for years. Yet most of us are still plagued by unwanted messages – thanks, in part, to the toothlessness of the law:
“Until now, the law required the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to prove a company caused ‘substantial damage or substantial distress’ through their conduct before action can be taken…
“Last year there were more than 175,000 complaints made to the ICO about nuisance calls and texts, but prosecutions are few.”
Lowering the legal threshold for action should enable the ICO to make some headway, but further changes are required. Instead of us having to opt-out of receiving cold calls and unsolicited texts, all such communications should be illegal unless the recipient deliberately opts-in to getting them.
This would make the legal position crystal clear, but what about the question of enforcement? How, for instance, can we stop computerised systems capable of making millions of automated calls everyday? No doubt, there would be technical hurdles to overcome – not least the challenge posed by overseas call centres. But have you noticed that very few cold calls seem to get through late in the evening or overnight? If the phone companies can stop these calls from being made, then I’m sure they could do the same during the rest of the day.
As for the other technical challenges, I’m equally certain that these would be rapidly surmounted if the phone companies were made liable for all related fines.
There’s an argument that cold calling serves a useful function, but one has to ask: who for? These days, if we need a particular product or service, it’s easy enough to find the information online. Cold calling, on the other hand, is hugely inefficient from the consumers’ point of view, with only a tiny proportion of calls resulting in a sale. Obviously, this is enough to make it worthwhile for the seller – but the gain comes at the cost of wasting the time of almost everyone called. It may suit the industry to assume that our time, peace and concentration has no value – but obviously it does. Those responsible are therefore engaged in a nationwide act of theft.
On this matter, as with so many others, government must decide whether it is pro-market or merely pro-business.