India may be headed for ‘do-not-call’ registry

India’s Supreme Court has begun discussions with the federal government, five mobile operators and several banks in response to litigation brought by a Delhi-based activist who complained that his family has been harassed by unsolicited marketing calls over mobile phone networks.

The public interest litigation brought by activist Harsh Pathak is likely to evoke sympathy from both mobile and fixed line phone users in the country, who are deluged daily by unsolicited marketing calls offering loans, insurance policies, bank accounts and credit cards.

Pathak petitioned the Supreme Court to issue a directive to the federal government that would create a legal framework protecting individual privacy from telemarketers. His proposal includes the creation of a do-not-call registry similar to that introduced by the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S.

The Supreme Court instead has issued “notices” to the government, banks and phone operators. The notices do not demand any action by the recipients but are a way of notifying them that the court is examining the matter and may take further steps.

By issuing the notices the court has indicated that it recognizes the problem as a significant one, according to Paavan Duggal, a Delhi-based cyber law consultant and an advocate at the Supreme Court.

“It would hence be prudent for the government to come up as quickly as possible with some balanced regulatory framework that protects the privacy of the citizen, while at the same time not killing the telemarketing industry,” Duggal said.

While current Indian laws protect individual privacy from the government, they do not protect citizens adequately from telemarketers, Duggal said. “This is the loophole that the telemarketers are exploiting to make unsolicited calls,” he said.

Given India’s fractious coalition politics, however, it may be some time before laws on the issue can be enacted, experts said. The experts pointed to the nearly two-year delay by Indian law makers to fine tune the country’s Information Technology Act of 2000 to incorporate new data protection provisions.

An alternative would be for the country’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to include the relevant privacy clauses in the licenses it issues to so-called “other service providers,” which include call centers and telemarketers, according to Duggal. The Delhi-based Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the country’s telecom services regulator, could also put in place regulations requiring fixed line and mobile providers to ensure that their networks are not being misused, Duggal added.

India had more than 92 million telephone subscribers at the end of 2004, of which 48 million were mobile subscribers, according to TRAI.