Will you block SMS adverts in UAE?

SMS ad blocking GIF
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

DUBAI: Unsolicited adverts have many ways to crop into your personal space, be it your mobile phones, social networking platforms or websites.

But now, UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has stepped in to help customers block unwanted text messages (SMS adverts).

Reacting to the announcement, residents said they were eager to use the new service and put an end to unsolicited text messages.

UAE social networking sites were abuzz these last few days with suggestions, comments and queries over the new regulation introduced by the TRA, which allowed mobile phone users to block SMS advertisements by simply sending a text message with the word “Ball” to 7726. In cooperation with Etisalat and du, network operators will subsequently block any advertising texts that start with “AD”.

What UAE residents say

While the general consensus said that blocking SMS spam was a much-needed initiative, some mobile phone users suggested the telecom authority take stricter measures against telemarketers, and maybe in the future, offer a way to block those types of ads as well.

Mona Al Ketbi voiced her concern over privacy issues, and pointed out that shops and advertising companies do not have the right to use people’s phone numbers for commercial advertisements without the consent of the number’s owner.

“I am really happy about the new ad blocking campaign. It was getting kind of annoying having companies message me their offers. I get around five ads a day, so I am definitely going to block the ads. It’s a good move from the TRA,” said Mohammed Zaki, a Dubai resident.

Abu Majed said he appreciated the new service as he will finally stop receiving unwarranted text messages at 3pm that tend to disrupt his naps.

UAE resident Abu Salma took to social media to comment: “I am grateful that we can all benefit from blocking unwanted ads. I tried it three years ago but while the ads kept coming, the messages from my bank were blocked. This time around, I will try it again and block all the annoying ads.”

Ali Al Yammahi, said: “This is great but will this block text messages for services such as electricity bills, Ministry of Interior, health services, and bank services?”

SMS from banks will not blocked, says UAE telecom authority

On its social media platforms, the TRA stated that the service is free to use for all Etisalat and du customers, and emphasised that any SMS sent by government departments or banks will not be affected.

“The service will not block transaction messages or those that do not contain the code ‘AD’. During this stage [of the service], licensees were obligated to create a code for each entity, and all advertisements must use the symbol that begins with ‘AD’, followed by the company’s name. As for messages of operations or alerts, they will reach their subscribers provided that the message does not contain the code ‘AD’.”

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Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata,/ Jay Hilotin / Gulf News

How do SMS advertisers get your mobile number?

Mobile phone marketing is a science, even before cellular phones became ubiquitous. There are MBA and PhD dissertations written on the subject. Search the web and you’ll see articles such as: “20 Easy Ways to Collect Customer Mobile Numbers”.

And about this one? “9 Useful Tips for Collecting Phone Numbers for SMS Marketing”. That’s why SMS ads follow you, even when you sleep. It’s part of the broader “mobile marketing” trend aimed at reaching a target audience— on their smartphones, tablets, and/or other mobile devices”.

20210119 sms spam
Mobile phone users can now block unsolicited SMS advertisements.

No free lunch

In tackling the issue of SMS spam, there’s no such thing as free lunch. A harvest of phone numbers is being done everyday, perhaps by the millions. How? One is through raffle tickets. That’s where you give your details — just in case you win a TV set, a car or a holiday.

So if you’ve written your name/mobile number/email/nationality at a supermarket’s raffle ticket, hoping to be left unknown or unseen by SMS marketers is asking far too much. Of course, you may download “free” apps that arrest SMS spam; and yes, they’re “free”. But most of them also come with ad support, which means there will be advertisers popping up on that free app you just downloaded.

Advertising may be intrusive sometimes, but it’s fact of life. In our digital world, an even more intrusive form — “geotargeting” — has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. That’s how Facebook, Google, Youtube and any “free” app/service that collects your data has become very rich.

The question is: “What value do I get out of the free use of app, or even a chance to win in a raffle?”

What is ‘Geotargeting’

Geotargeting is the method of delivering different content to a user of digital device (mobile phone, laptop, tablet, PC) based on their geolocation — country, region/state, city, street, metro code/zip code, organization, IP address, ISP or other criteria.

TRA: Regulator’s role in the UAE

The TRA was empowered by Federal Law by Decree No. (3) of 2003 to oversee the telecommunication sector in the UAE. As part of the TRA´s role to represent consumer interests, the TRA also established regulations for telecom service providers in the UAE.

  1. The telecom authority is responsible in ensuring the protection of consumer rights, which comprises of:
  2. The right to have access to basic telecommunications services at reasonable prices.
  3. The right to fair treatment without undue discrimination between another consumer of the same service.
  4. The right to express dissatisfaction with a telecommunication services directly to the service provider who is providing the telecommunication service provider.
  5. The right to have complaints handled in an efficient manner.
  6. The right to be provided with services that are safe and secure.
  7. The right to privacy of personal information.
  8. The right not to receive unsolicited electronic communications messages (also known as spam).

An ad-free mobile world will be costly for users

The new TRA directive helps us stop the menace of SMS ads, but what about the ads on other apps and browsers. There isn’t much you can do since it’s a significant revenue source. If the app is free, it will have ads, and some of them can be annoying. But that’s the price you pay for a free service.

Alright, if you don’t want the ads, subscribe or upgrade to a premium service. It will help use the app without those pesky ads. But then you pay for that ad-free experience.

What about mobile web browsers? Most sites will have pop-up ads. Privacy and security concerns are some of the main reasons for installing an ad-blocker. But for many, uninterrupted user experience of browsing is what matters.

Most websites make “calls” to ad-tracking and delivering services providing data on your browsing behaviour which will help them target ads based on your interests. All these “calls” take data and time. It also slows your browsing as the pages load slowly.

The data collected is a major source of worry. Although it’s generally acceptable to collect information on general location and type of mobile devices, more worrying are the data on credit card numbers, banking information and personal photos. This makes for a compelling reason to install ad-blockers.

If you install an ad-blocker, many websites won’t allow you full access. You might get notifications asking you to turn off the ad-blocker. Again, the payment model helps. If you have subscribed to a website, the chances of being hit with ads are significantly less. But not always.

Tech majors make billions from digital advertising, while it’s bread and butter for independent web publishers. Many tech giants have realised the importance of user experience and have taken steps to regulate pop-up ads. Yet, a clear solution eludes.

Advertising drives free content on the internet, so if you block ads be prepared to pay.

10 tips for safe mobile phone usage

Lock your phone: Use the auto-lock option Use passcodes that are not obvious. A fingerprint ID or Face ID would be better.

Personal data: Do not share personal information: full name, date of birth, physical address, credit card numbers, banking details and so on, unless it’s safe.

Phone sharing: It’s not advisable. If you do, please be around to see what the person is doing with your phone. They can impersonate you, especially on messaging apps

Location sharing: Do it only if you have to, especially for maps and delivery apps. Use the option: Only when using the app. Don’t share your location with strangers.

Installing apps: Some apps pose security and privacy risks. Always read user comments or reviews before downloading an app.

Don’t click on links: Phishing is common, and messages and emails look very authentic. Avoid automatically clicking on the links, unless you are sure. A better option would be to visit the website.

Virus alert: Don’t fall for this ruse even if the message or mail says your phone is infected. Or even if it’s from a tech giant or a well-known company.

Public Wifi: These are vulnerable. So avoid using them if you have important data on your phone.

Encrypt your data: Use the options for Data Protection (iOS) and Encrypt Phone (Android) settings.

Privacy settings: Get to know it and use it. It can protect you.

Chats replace SMS
Image Credit: Gulf News

UAE Internet guidelines:

The TRA has designed a specific list known as the Prohibited Content Categories, which explains why certain websites and webpages are blocked in the UAE. According to the TRA, prohibited content is defined as any content that offends against, is objectionable to, or is contrary to public interest, public morality, public order, public and national security, Islam or is otherwise prohibited by any applicable UAE law, regulation or order.

  1. Bypassing blocked content. This category includes internet content that allows or helps users to have access to prohibited content including the proxy servers and Virtual Private Networks Services (VPNs) that mainly allow access to the prohibited content on the internet.
  2. Pornography, nudity.
  3. Impersonation, fraud and phishing.
  4. Insult, slander and defamation.
  5. Invasion of privacy.
  6. Offences against the UAE and public order.
  7. Supporting criminal acts and skills.
  8. Drugs.
  9. The promotion of medicine and medical products that are prohibited or unlicensed including dietary supplements, weight loss products, weight increase and unlicensed cosmetic pills and creams.
  10. Infringement of intellectual property rights.
  11. Discrimination, racism and contempt of religion.
  12. Viruses and malware.
  13. Promotion of or trading in prohibited commodities and services, such as counterfeit and fake goods, firearms, ammunitions and explosives.
  14. Illegal communication services.
  15. Gambling.
  16. Terrorism.
  17. Prohibited top level domains allocated for purposes that violate UAE laws regardless of its content, such as .xxx, among others.
  18. Illegal activities.
  19. Upon order from judicial authorities or public prosecution in the UAE.

Source: Telecommunications Regulatory Authority

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