TRAI’s new SMS guidelines are a step in the wrong direction

Starting today, TRAI has started enforcing new guidelines with the intention of stopping the menace of “promotional” SMS, or SMS spam. No promotional SMS can be sent to any user who is on the DND list, and there are hefty fines for violations. Everyone is rejoicing the death of SMS spam, but this is a huge backward step for India – because along with SMS spam, TRAI has also outlawed the sending of automated SMS to users with their permission. That’s right: there is no way for a company X to send a status update to user Y even if the user Y desperately wants such updates, and even if he’s willing to give it in writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate unsolicited SMS messages as much as you do. But what TRAI has done is throw out the baby with the bathwater.

If I book a ticket on, I used to get an SMS confirmation. I could use that SMS at the theatre to pick up my ticket. Now? Gone. If a doctor answers an important patient question on, the patient would get an SMS with the doctor’s answer (so that they get the answer immediately, and not have to wait until they log in to the site next time). This is a service that the patients love, and they start complaining as soon as the SMS service stops working. Now? It’s illegal. The fact that the receiver of the SMS actually wants it does not matter. SMS from telling me where my book has reached – Gone. SMS updates that tell me whether my waitlisted Indian Railways ticket’s status has gotten confirmed – Gone.

Here are the sordid details as I understand them:

Automated SMS can be divided up into two categories: promotional/bulk SMS, and transactional SMS. Bulk SMS is where you’re sending the same SMS to a large number of recipients (e.g. a daily stock tip would be in this category). Transactional SMS is when you’re sending different sms updates/alerts/messages to different customers (e.g. an sms update from your bank immediately after a high value transaction on your credit card).

According to the new regulations, here is my understanding of the effects:

  • Users can sign up for a full DND (in which you don’t get any bulk SMS), or a partial DND, where you can opt in to receive bulk sms in certain categories. There are 7 such categories: 1: Banking/Insurance/Finance, 2: Real Estate, 3: Education, 4: Health, 5: Consumer Goods, Automobiles, 6: Communications/Broadcasting/Entertainment/IT, 7: Tourism & Leisure
  • Any user signin up for partial DND is pretty much asking the world of spammers (in that category) to start spamming him/her. Imagine – the partial DND list will be a public available list of people who have indicated an interest in a particular category and cannot complian if you spam them. A marketer’s (aka spammer’s) dream. As we say in Hindi, this is pretty much aa bail mujhe maar.
  • For DND users, transactional SMS can be sent only by: Banks, Financial Institutions, Insurance Companies, Credit Card Companies, Railways or Airline companies, and registered Educational Institutions. That’s it. No one else can send any SMS to a user signed up for DND.
  • Everybody else will essentially be treated as a telemarketer and be fined heavily in case of DND violations.

So, imagine you provide stock tips via SMS to users you have opted in to your service (what the heck, they’re even paying you for it). Under the new regulations:

  • No, you are not a Financial Institution just because you’re providing finance information. So you can’t send transactional
  • Under the new regulations, you cannot send your SMS to any user on the DND.
  • Your only hope is to convince that user to sign up for a partial-DND and opt in to receive messages for category #1: banking/insurance/finance. I would assume that most users who’ve signed up for DND will be wary of opening themselves up to telemarketing by going the partial DND route.

Follow a discussion of this question on Quora for more.

Also see Sagar Bedmutha’s post on on this topic.