Qatar cabinet approves draft privacy law to curb spam messages on phones

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Jan Persiel/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

In the latest effort to stop spam from pestering Qatar residents, local authorities are working on a new law that would make it harder for companies to send out marketing messages via email or SMS without running into legal trouble.

The new restrictions come in the form of a data privacy law, a draft of which was approved by the country’s cabinet yesterday. The legislation protects personal information that’s either collected or processed electronically, and has now been referred to the Advisory (Shura) Council.

Mobile spam

Matthew Walker

Mobile spam

One of the specific provisions contained in the law is a ban on sending direct marketing messages electronically without obtaining an individual’s “prior consent,” according to a statement from QNA.

Based on similarly worded provisions in other countries, this suggests that customers would have to explicitly opt-in and agree to receive marketing messages from companies.

In the UK for example, the Information Commissioner’s Office urges organizations to keep records, such as checked-off opt-in boxes, showing that consent was clearly and knowingly given by individuals.

However, the UK also has “soft opt-in” provisions that allow companies to send marketing messages about their own products or services to existing customers if they’ve collected an individual’s contact details during the course of a sale.

It’s not clear if Qatar’s new law will have similar features.

If so, the measures would help tackle some existing problems, as many residents complain that they receive unsolicited text messages from companies with which they have no relationship.

Blocking senders

According to a previous statement from Qatar’s largest telecom firm, Ooredoo, many residents start receiving unwanted SMS marketing messages after voluntarily giving their mobile numbers upon request to cashiers or when filling out contest entry forms:

“Customers go shopping, and when the cashier asks to fill in a form to either sign up for their loyalty program, be notified of discounts, add a phone number and email to account right before payment, customers give their mobile number.

If the retailer is part of a large chain, that number is then passed on to all their retailers. This is one of the primary ways customers end up getting Spam SMS from these companies.”

Ooredoo customers already on such lists can SMS the message “Unsub CompanyName” to 92600 to block particular users. Additionally, Ooredoo’s mobile app has a feature that allows users to block senders by their phone numbers or company names.

Vodafone Qatar customers, meanwhile, can block an unknown or spamming sender via Vodafone’s helpline (111) or website.

However, it’s trickier for telecom firms to tackle spam sent through social media apps, which is an emerging source of frustration for some residents:

Ooredoo suggested using features within WhatsApp to block unwanted senders.

Separately, Qatar’s telecom watchdog – the Communications Regulatory Authority – said in May that it was drafting a code of conduct to strengthen the current guidelines for companies that use text/SMS messages and applications such as WhatsApp, Viber and Skype to reach customers.

Sensitive information

The provisions within the data protection law endorsed by the cabinet yesterday are expected to go beyond direct marketing.

There will also be stipulations that give individuals rights over the privacy of their personal data as well as obligations on the entities that control and process that information, according to QNA.

In 2013, ictQatar representatives were quoted as saying that the legislation – in the works since at least 2011 – would focus on protecting information regarding children, location data and sensitive personal information like religious affiliation and medical conditions.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Petar Milošević/Wikicommons

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

More recently, law enforcement officials have also handled cases involving the increasing amount of personal data that many residents keep on their smartphones.

In 2014, the Ministry of Interior said it had arrested 35 men working at local phone shops who were caught copying photos and videos stored on customers’ phones without their knowledge.

A statement issued at the time said the suspects had been charged with blackmail and extortion and stated that copying images from another person’s mobile devices without their permission “is a punishable crime.”

However, there was no mention of the individuals being charged with breaching Qatar’s privacy laws or other legal provisions aimed at protecting personal data.

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