Vodafone raises 'porn spam' fears over Ofcom contract consultation

Ofcom remedy to halt mid-contract price rises will apparently see hundreds of inappropriate 'spam' texts sent every year to customers of all ages, says Vodafone

Proposals to protect mobile phone users from unfair mid-contract price rises could see children being sent text messages telling them the cost of phoning sex lines is going up, Vodafone has claimed.

The telecoms regulator Ofcom is clamping down on mobile phone companies that raise people's bills mid-contract – a practice that costs UK consumers an estimated £150m a year.

It announced in January that it was taking action following an outcry over a string of price rise announcements affecting millions of customers on "fixed" contracts. The most recent was imposed by O2, which increased monthly mobile bills by 3.2% for up to 7 million people from 28 February.

But Ofcom has prompted an industry row over one of its proposed remedies, which the phone companies claim would require them to notify customers of changes to any "third party" prices such as premium rate numbers, international calls, 118 numbers and other so-called non-geographic numbers beginning with 08.

Ofcom's consultation document (PDF) sets out several proposals, one of which states that companies would have to "give adequate notice not shorter than one month … to every consumer and small business customer of any price modification".

It also proposes that customers would be able to cancel their contract without penalty if their company announces any price increase during their deal.

In its submission to Ofcom, Vodafone, which increased bills for as many as 10 million customers by up to £1.55 a month in November 2012, argued that the regulator's plans would have serious unintended consequences for consumers.

It said the company did not object to restrictions on "core" price rises within the fixed terms of a contract, but added that Ofcom had failed to realise there was a fundamental distinction between the prices it controlled, which were included in the headline monthly cost figure, and those which it did not control, which were not included in the monthly price.

Vodafone said that under the proposals, mobile phone companies would have to send texts to all their customers – including those on pay as you go deals – regardless of whether they had ever used the service whose price was changing. This would result in hundreds of essentially "spam" texts being sent every year to customers.

In its submission, Vodafone states: "As written, Ofcom's proposed draft … would require communications providers to 'spam' notify every customer of every change to the price of any service, including clearly inappropriate notifications such as advising children of changes to adult premium rate prices or notifying rate changes for obscure international destinations that a customer had never called." This would include children with "adult content bars" on their devices, Vodafone said.

Such texts would have to provide some detail of what the price change related to, though it is not clear if the name of the service would have to be given or whether a generic form of wording such as "premium rate adult lines" would suffice. The text message would disclose the phone number of the service.

Ofcom expects to publish its decision in June. A spokesman for the regulator said: "Ofcom's plans are not for consumers to receive age-inappropriate or large amounts of text messages.

"Our proposals are aimed at ensuring consumers are better protected from mid-contract price rises. The consultation has only recently closed and we will consider all responses before publishing our decision this summer."

Contributor

Rupert Jones

The GuardianTramp

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