The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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When Atal spams, better grin and hear it
- Poll pitch on cellphones comes calling without invitation but carries a price tag for sermon and screensaver

New Delhi, March 3: “Namaskar, main Atal Bihari Vajpayee bol raha hoon. Panch saal beet chuke hain. In panch saalon mein hamari sarkar ne bahut kuchh kiya hai….” (Hello, I’m Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Five years have passed. In the past five years, my government has done a lot of good work….)

The BJP has taken the battle for ballots into the airwaves. Cellphone users have started receiving unsolicited calls from the Prime Minister giving his spiel about his government’s achievements and why voters should vote the NDA back to power.

Party poll managers have begun sending out these unsolicited calls — called cellphone spamming. They are able to do this because there is no law in the land that protects people from such callous invasion of their privacy.

BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan, a former Union communications minister and a tech-savvy poll manager, had said last week that the party would be using the airwaves to get its message across to a large chunk of the 24 million mobile phone subscribers and 46 million fixed line subscribers.

There’s more: cellphone users who wish to hear Vajpayee again after being spammed the first time have to call a toll number — tentatively set as 3636.

The cellphone service providers will rake in the moolah from the voice-activated value-added service. The customer will have to pay Rs 6 a minute to listen to Vajpayee and Rs 9 to download a ringtone of Vande Mataram. It may cost anywhere between Rs 15 and Rs 25 to download Vajpayee’s picture to save as screensaver on the mobile phone. Even if you are a BJP supporter, there is no free lunch — so when you send an SMS to 3636, be prepared to pay the cost of value-added service.

After the Election Commission’s directive not to broadcast

political advertisements on television, those supporting the use of hi-tech for electioneering in the BJP are on the backfoot.

Mahajan had sought the views of legal experts in the party, including law minister Arun Jaitley, who apparently cautioned against indiscriminate spamming.

The general secretary has been told that though there are no privacy laws in India that would make bombarding of SMS, phone calls and e-mail messages illegal, it would not be prudent to use a tactic that could bring the Election Commission into the picture.

Sources in the commission said the issue would be examined based on the methods allowed for candidates participating in elections.

Cyber law expert Pawan Duggal said: “India does not have a privacy law. While we were quick to enact the IT Act, the issue of privacy and data protection is still pending. Any political party or commercial organisation can resort to spamming and get away with it legally.”

“But one reason political parties may not like to go full throttle sending their achievements using the email addresses and SMS on mobile phones is it will not go with the psyche of the voters…. It is a risk. We do not know how the voters will react,” said Duggal.

The BJP has decided not to highlight its utilisation of information technology tools in electioneering but will go ahead with their use in a truncated form.

“We are confident that voters would like to spend to hear a political leader who has done good work for the country’s growth. This would also highlight the popularity of Vajpayee as Prime Minister. It is wrong to send messages when they are not sought and the BJP will not like do anything which is illegal or against the Election Commission’s rules,” a state-level BJP leader in Delhi said.

The BJP is all set to ink a deal this week with most mobile operators in the country to activate this service.

Sources working on the deal representing a leading mobile operator said: “Since the revenue sharing would be very low compared to the amount normally agreed between the content provider and operators, we may offer voice-based service at a lower cost. But it has to be financially and technically viable since the traffic would be very heavy for this service.”

Technical support, including maintenance of the central server, is likely to be provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd or a Mumbai-based private telecom operator. Officials in BSNL said any such request from any party would be examined on commercial terms.

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