The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cell hardsell under poll panel scanner
- Telecom watchdog to vet law following complaints of unsolicited appeals

New Delhi, May 10: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other candidates who have been making their sales pitch through unsolicited calls on the cellphone could be in trouble for violating the model code of conduct.

The Election Commission has asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to convene a meeting to discuss the legal and technical issues related to calls made by Vajpayee and other candidates to voters on mobile and fixed line phones.

Subscribers have complained to telecom operators that they have received these calls even on the day of polling. Election Commission rules require campaigning to end 48 hours before polling day.

This is the first time that political parties have tapped mobile phone subscribers — either through calls or SMS.

Cellphone users, especially those who have been roaming (travelling outside their home cellular circle), are furious because the calls are unsolicited and amount to spamming and because they have to pay a small charge to receive them while roaming. Those travelling abroad were particularly upset because most calls came to them late at night and they had to pay to receive them.

A senior Election Commission official said: “We have asked the telecom regulatory body to examine issues that could be violation of the model code of conduct. Internally, we are examining whether the calls made on the day of polling to voters over the phone amount to campaigning beyond the deadline.”

“The regulator would examine the Telegraph Act and explain whether it amounts to violation of the model code of conduct. A meeting will soon be convened to discuss this and a few other issues,” the official said.

Trai will also examine the impact of the calls on the telecom network. Election Commission officials said if all political parties decide to start making phone calls to potential voters, there could be havoc.

The issue of whether the voter has a right to privacy that would allow them to bar calls from political parties needs to be explored, the authorities said.

“Currently, the political parties are allotted time on TV and other media to speak about their manifesto and seek votes. But over the phone, you have no choice since you don’t know where the call is coming from unless you take it. The question is: Should subscribers be entitled to a choice' What is the legal position' Is there a technical solution available' These will form part of the discussion,” an Election Commission official said.

Some subscribers have complained to the operators about the monetary loss and the disturbance caused by the calls. But telecom operators are helpless in the absence of any regulatory directive.

Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman and managing director of the Bharti Group which offers mobile services under the AirTel brand name, said: “We cannot stop any call as per the Telegraph Act. We get 30 paise per call made to the subscribers but it leads to a drain on the network that is much costlier than the money we receive for carrying these calls. We do not have a choice to stop or monitor them in the absence of any regulatory directive.”

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