OrderPaperToday- Have you ever expected an important text message such as a credit alert? Your phone suddenly beeped and you rush to check the message only to find out it is a message from one of the telecom network providers about a product or service that you are definitely not interested in, especially at that crucial time when you are expecting a credit alert.

Unsolicited messages as breach of privacy

We have all been there. The scourge of unsolicited messages and calls is almost as old as the telecom industry in Nigeria itself. The barrage of unsolicited messages that fill up phone inboxes has also put consumers at risk of missing important messages with very detrimental implications. Furthermore, unsolicited calls sometimes come in at odd times when the consumer is in the courtroom, an important meeting, driving, praying, or sleeping, thereby consisting a nuisance and disturbance to crucial day-to-day activities.

In addition, fraudsters have also cloned unsolicited sms relating to promos to dupe unsuspecting citizens of their hard earned money.

Undoubtedly, unsolicited messages and calls are a violation of one of digital rights of the telecom consumer – the “right to choose” – as affirmed by the Nigerian Communications Commissions (NCC), the regulatory body for telecom operations in Nigeria.

Furthermore, Adeboro Odunlami, a policy analyst and digital rights advocate at Paradigm Initiative, adds that there is also a breach of the right to privacy due to the unauthorised manner in which consumer’s personnel information such as phone numbers are collected and used for the purpose of unsolicited marketing messages and calls.

According to statistics from the NCC, as at November 2019, there were 182.7 million active telecom subscribers in Nigeria. The breakdown shows that MTN leads with 67.35 million subscribers, followed by Globacom with 51.14 million subscribers, while Airtel is in third place with 49.65 million subscribers. 9mobile boasts of 14.16 million subscribers with Visafone having 134,274 subscribers.

Chart showing percentage distribution of subscribers among telecom network providers as at November, 2019. Source: NCC

With such a huge number of Nigerians subscribed to telecom services, protecting the digital rights of consumers by ending unsolicited messages and calls should be a top priority for all stakeholders.

Previous efforts to address the issue

Although the NCC had previously ordered all Mobile Network Operators to implement the Do-Not-Disturb (DND) service and dedicate the short code “2442” to enable consumers decide on what messages they may wish to receive from the network provider, the major challenge is that millions of subscribers are not even aware of the existence of the DND service. Also, the high level of illiteracy in Nigeria means that many subscribers will have difficulty navigating the DND service in any case.

Furthermore, in May 2018, the Senate directed its Committee on Communications to summon the four leading GSM operators in the country as well as the Nigerian Communications Commissions (NCC), the Nigerian Consumer Protection Council, and the Association of Advertising Practitioners of Nigeria (AAPN) over what it described as “intrusive and unsolicited adverts”.

The motion that led to the invitation of the telecommunication giants was sponsored by Senator Yahaya A. Abdullahi (APC, Kebbi North) who alleged a continued deterioration of GSM services in the country.

He expressed concerns over “the issue of frequent unsolicited calls, product and programme promos, as well as instances of tricking Nigerians to subscribe to riddles and jokes, indiscriminate religious contents and caller tunes that sometimes offend subscribers’ “sensibilities.”

Abdullahi added: “Even with the setting up of the “Do-Not-Disturb, (DND) opt-out application, as demanded by the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, the GSM operators have not done enough to educate the public on its availability and workings.”

However, nothing much has been heard from the Red Chamber before the introduction of a new legislation in December, 2019.

What the new legislation says

The new legislation titled “Protection of Personal Information Bill” was sponsored by Senator Stella Oduah (PDP, Anambra) and provides for the “rights of persons regarding unsolicited electronic communications and automated decision making”.

This bill appears to be the most concrete intervention yet in the bid to end unsolicited messages and calls in Nigeria as it prohibits the processing of personal information of consumers for such purposes without due permission of the consumers.

According to section 66 states of the bill:
(1) “The processing of personal information of a person for the purpose of direct marketing by means of automatic calling machines, facsimile machines, SMSs or electronic mail is prohibited unless the person —
(a) has given his, her or its consent to the processing; or
(b) is, subject to subsection (2), a customer of the responsible party.
(2) A responsible party may only process the personal information of a person who is a customer of the responsible party in terms of subsection (1 ) (b)—
(a) if the responsible party has obtained the contact details of the person in the context of the sale of a product or service;
(b) for the purpose of direct marketing of the responsible party’s own similar products or services; and
(c) if the person has been given a reasonable opportunity to object, free of charge and in a manner free of unnecessary formality, to such use of his, her or its electronic details—
(i) at the time when the information was collected; and
(ii) on the occasion of each communication with the person for the purpose of marketing if the person has not initially refused such use.

Furthermore, this section of the bill provides guidelines for the processing of personal information for the purpose of marketing through messages, emails and calls if the consumer concerned has granted his/her prior permission.
According to subsection (3): Any communication for the purpose of direct marketing must contain—
(a) details of the identity of the sender or the person on whose behalf the communication has been sent; and
(b) an address or other contact details to which the recipient may send a request that such communications cease.

With the new legislation, the “right to privacy” and the “right to choose” of all telecom service consumers is fully guaranteed and protected, leaving no room for unsolicited messages and calls. If the bill is signed into law, it will provide the needed lasting and enforceable solution to unsolicited communications in Nigeria.

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Damilola Zebulun Adeniran
Damilola is a multiple award-winning Writer, Researcher, and Community/Sustainable Development Practitioner. His interests and experience span across media, academics, human capital development, and strategic planning. Damilola is a Paradigm Initiative Digital Rights and Inclusion Media Fellow. He is the first Nigerian in history to win the blog4dev writing contest organised by the World Bank Group. Also, Damilola's written work on violent extremism and sustainable peace in Nigeria won a PeaceWriteNow prize, presented by the Embassy of Ireland in June, 2018. His works have been published in Nigeria and the United States of America, in English and in French. Damilola has also attended important meetings within and outside the African continent including the 2019 Spring Meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C, USA and the West Africa Coastal Areas Management Program (WACA) Marketplace in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He was also a special guest on a panel discussion titled “How creative industry can help to stem fragility,” which was held at the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington, D.C, USA. Furthermore, Damilola was selected as a Champion of Advocacy against extreme poverty and preventable diseases by ONE Campaign in May, 2019. An alumnus of the prestigious Lagos Business School and Federal University of Technology Akure, Damilola Adeniran represents Nigeria in the Youth Transforming Africa Program.

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