Vodacom Cellphone subscribers are being charged for unsolicited “content services” – despite the network provider’s claim that it adheres to the “industry norm” that new content services must be solicited by the subscriber. Vodacom, like other network providers, is making a fortune from content providers, or WASPs (Wireless Application Service Providers), which piggyback on the networks.
The cellphone industry claims that there are as many subscribers as there are people in South Africa – around 45 million. It’s therefore fair to say that South Africans are shelling out hundreds of millions, if not billions, of rand each year for content services alone. A substantial portion of this loot appears to be going to content providers registered offshore.
Which is perhaps why, for weeks, Vodacom ducked noseweek’s questions about how they came to collect R165 from subscriber Marie Ensink (66), for an internet connection to a porn site, that she didn’t ask for.
Mrs Ensink signed a Vodacom contract on 8 September last year. Six months later, on 8 May 2009 (at 2.57pm), she received an unsolicited text message, which read: “Ur Adult video here!” Wondering how the sender had got hold of her number, Mrs Ensink deleted the message. A couple of hours later another SMS arrived: “Welcome 2 African Gsm.VC! Content on its way! Click on it 2 download! [...] sms STOP to 37425 unsub. Subscription service R15/3day. 16+.”
As she had not subscribed to any services, Ensink deleted this SMS too. As she told noseweek: “You only unsubscribe from something you have subscribed to. There was no way I was going to request such a service – I don’t even know how to send a text message.” Over the next few weeks, Ensink received several more such messages, each containing a link to an internet porn site. She deleted them and complained to her local Vodacom shop. Staff there were unable to stop the SMSs from coming in, but finally assured her that the “content service” would be discontinued at the end of May. It was. But when the monthly bill arrived it showed that Ensink had to pay R165 for content services.
When noseweek contacted Vodacom, the provider produced the log of Ensink’s cell transactions – which indeed confirmed, as she’d claimed, that she hadn’t sent a single SMS. It did show that on 8 May Ensink had received two messages from Mira Networks.
Mira themselves had another version of events. A Mira consultant, Princess, claimed in an interview with noseweek that Ensink had sent an SMS on May 8, requesting what’s known in the industry as “erotic content”. To prove it, Princess sent noseweek the log of Ensink’s transactions – which only served to affirm that it was Mira that had initiated communication with Ensink and not the other way round. The Mira transaction log also showed that each time Ensink’s phone received an SMS from Mira she was billed 1.5 Euros (by Vodacom), without any attempt on her part to access the link sent to her. When noseweek pointed out to Princess that Mira had contacted Ensink first, she forwarded an email which, she said, came from Linguistic Mobile. It claimed that on 21 April Marie Ensink had accessed an online Google advert for Linguistic Mobile, which “promotes cell offers for the adult and non-adult market”.
The email further claims: “The user in question [Ensink] specifically requested adult content. This request led to the user’s number being added to the promotions database. This was 100% free, no cost was incurred, and the promotions are free to receive.” All of which is highly improbable, if not downright nonsense, ie: simply another ploy to avoid responsibility. Investigations showed that Bestcellpromos, the internet domain specified in the Linguistic Mobile email, was only registered (by Toronto-based software company Tucows Inc) on 21 April 2009 – the very day that Ensink was alleged to have accessed it. This, as IT specialist Patrick Wright of Rocksolid Systems tells noseweek, is extremely unlikely: “After registration of a domain, it takes up to 48 hours to point to a server.” It also usually takes days for an ad application to be approved by Google. Furthermore, Marie Ensink herself claims that she doesn’t even use a computer, never mind indulge herself in surfing the internet for expensive porn for her cell phone.
|Vodacom subscriber Marie Ensink
Asked to provide proof from Google that Ensink, or anyone else, had clicked on the Bestcellpromos ad on that day, Mira Networks’ customer services director Charlotte Endres simply passed the buck: “Our role is to provide connectivity for content providers into all the networks in SA. We do not sell services and don't get directly involved with the creation of services and we do not advertise any SMS service. That is the responsibility of our clients, the content providers. All our content clients are WASPA [Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association – the industry watchdog] registered members and it is their responsibility to ensure that the services they offer are compliant and above-board.”
She then asked noseweek to direct all further queries to Linguistic Mobile Services – which turned out to be a non-registered entity bearing a UK address. An internet domain, linguisticmobile.com, is registered (as of September 2008), to James McAteer of Bedfordshire, Great Britain. The domain registration gives a false telephone number – one never allocated say British Telecom.
Oddly, minutes after noseweek received Mira’s email, one arrived from James McAteer himself, written from Linguistic Mobile: “I would like to make it clear that Linguistic Mobile Services are not the company who are advertising these services – it is a customer of ours, Universal Mobile. For the record I am happy, from looking at the customer’s logs, that [Universal Mobile] have not contravened any rules or regulations that are set out within the WASPA code of conduct, and if this were the case Linguistic Mobile would not be dealing with them.”
By now, responsibility for who had solicited business from Ensink had been displaced from Vodacom to Mira to Linguistic Mobile, all of whom claimed that they had only passed on someone else’s messages, and that Ensink herself had solicited the content. Universal Mobile was indicated as the agent providing the actual content.
Vodacom’s view in Ensink’s case was put to noseweek by their chief communications officer, Dot Field: “Our initial investigations of this matter have shown that Mira Networks made initial contact by sending an SMS on 8 May at 14:57, and the subscriber opted in at 14:58. [At} 16:23 the confirmation for subscription was sent to the subscriber with an option to opt out but she did not unsubscribe. Next she started receiving the (9 x R15 = R135) content until she was unsubscribed on the 1st June 2009.”
Field explained that content is primarily provided by third parties: “The WASPs are responsible for creating the information that is delivered to the subscribers, which is referred to as content. They make use of Vodacom's cellular network infrastructure and billing relationship with the subscriber to deliver and bill for these services. As such, Vodacom does not carry nor distribute pornographic material – this is done by the WASP.”
Why then did Vodacom charge Ensink R165 for content services – R30 more than the actual Mira bill? No response. When noseweek asked Vodacom to explain why there is no monitoring of what gets sold as content on their network, the reply was that this would infringe on the right to privacy of its clients and customers. In other words: if Vodacom may not listen in to your conversations, it also may not regulate what is being sold to you through its network. Nor is any system in place for checking that porn is being sold only to adults.
The so called “industry norms” for WASPs are contained in the guidelines established by WASPA. Section 5.2 of the document clarifies that if a messsage has not been requested by its recipient, then it is unsolicited. In other words the sender is doing the soliciting, not the receiver. It says that:
“Any commercial message is considered unsolicited unless;
- the recipient has requested the message
- the recipient has a direct and recent (within the last six months) commercial relationship with the message originator and would reasonably expect to receive marketing communications from the originator; or
- the organisation supplying the originator with the recipient’s contact information has the recipient’s explicit consent to do so.”
But, as Ensink’s story shows, in practice a WASP can send an unsolicited messsage to a potential customer, then bill them for an unsolicited service when they “opt in” – by ignoring the message! Then, when challenged, the WASP, and the network carrying the message, are able to pass on the responsibility to whoever is next down the line – until it reaches some anonymous figure who says they’re convinced that no-one is to blame.
It appears that pre-paid subscribers are even being hit when they don’t reply to messages because they don’t have air time. When they later top up their account, the amount “owing” to the WASP is instantly deducted.
Vodacom does not provide a breakdown in its financial statements for content services revenue – because that would reveal the scale of the racke. It’s believed that networks retain around 50% of what they’re billing on behalf of WASPs. The industry watchdog, WASPA, tells noseweek
that “the affected party” can file a complaint with the association, which would then investigate. WASPA promised to provide a comprehensive response, but at the time of going to print, they had not done so. Mira Networks claims to be one of Vodacom’s “top SMS aggregators”. Mira would not disclose their fee for distributing pornographic content to local cellphones. Nor would they say how they obtain the cell numbers to which they send unsolicited material. (Also see nose114 Writing's on the wall for SMS greed
- Dot Field, Vodacom’s chief communications officer, informs noseweek that, on further investigation, “it was found that the proof from the WASP that the customer opted in or requested the content, was not adequate”. Vodacom has suspended the service of Linguistic Mobile, pending the outcome of an investigation by WASPA. Field says that in June a new rule was introduced in the WASPA code of conduct “that requires that any request from a customer to join a subscription service must be an independent transaction, with the specific intention of subscribing to a service”.
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