Photograph of Anil Chawla



Author - Anil Chawla

BSNL and VSNL, public sector Internet Service Providers impose restrictions on the number of recipients in an email message as well as on the size of attachments in a message. Analysis of the action of the ISP's.

Sometime back Internet consumers of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) received an e-mail message informing them of the anti-spamming measures implemented on Sancharnet (BSNLís internet server). One would have expected that BSNL would try to help its customers avoid receiving unwanted junk mail. Instead of doing that BSNL is only trying to act as a policeman preventing its customers from sending any bulk mail.

Ironically, the message began with ďDear Users, BSNL in its endeavor to provide you reliable internet (Sancharnet) services is continuously upgrading and enhancing its service offeringsĒ. After such a lofty beginning the message went on to announce that the freedom to send e-mail was being curtailed and the services had been downgraded.

Two key restrictions have been imposed on users. Firstly the maximum number of recipients per mail has been restricted to ten in any mail. In other words, sender can define maximum of 10 recipients in To, Cc and Bcc combined.

Second restriction is that the attachment size with any mail has been limited to 1 MB (no. of recipients x size of attachment = 1024 Kbyte = 1 MB). For example if mail is being sent to one recipient then maximum attachment size will be 1 MB and if mail is being sent to two recipients then maximum attachment size will be 512 KB.

As if the two restrictions were not sufficiently bad, the message goes on to add ďWe would also take this opportunity to request all users, not to send any unsolicited commercials mails to others. In case BSNL receives complaint against any user with regards to spamming, the account is liable to be terminated immediatelyĒ.

This practice of curtailing the rights of subscribers is not unique to BSNL. The other giant in the field Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL) also follows similar practices. The only difference is that VSNL has not bothered to inform its consumers about its self-prescribed rules. VSNL does not permit more than fifteen recipients in a mail. One does not know the rules that they follow regarding message size.

Will someone please tell BSNL and VSNL that they are service providers and not policemen! As service providers, BSNL and VSNL have a duty to protect the interests of their customers. They need not (and must not) go about imposing unnecessary and illegal restrictions on their customers.

It would have been ideal if BSNL and VSNL could provide support to their Internet users to enable them to sort out their incoming mail on the basis of some predefined rules, which each user may set. It would also be ideal if a user could decide that any e-mail containing obscene four letter words should not be downloaded or that attachments should be downloaded only after prior permission of user. Internet consumers need better protection from viruses that travel on the net. Large ISPís can easily install anti-virus softwares on their servers that could detect a possibly infected attachment and warn the recipient before downloading. Similarly, ISPís could ensure that e-mail messages containing obnoxious sexual messages are marked with a warning sign.

Any such measures would have protected BSNL and VSNL Internet users from spamming and viruses. These would have been in the interests of their consumers. Instead of taking such steps, BSNL and VSNL are acting against contractual obligations and interests of their consumers. It may well be argued that the restrictions imposed by them amount to a deficiency in service as defined under Consumer Protection Act.

Talking of legalities, it should be noted that sending unsolicited commercial mail is not a crime. Internet Service Providers (ISPís) have no right to terminate a contract on the basis of such an allegation. On the other hand, it is a crime for ISPís to act as message delivery agents for obscene messages. Everyday many internet users receive unsolicited obscene messages from various pornographic sites across the world. ISPís are committing a crime by not helping their users avoid receiving such messages.

Apparently, crime and legality are terms that ISPís use only when their own interests are affected. Otherwise they tend to look upon themselves as above law. Recent news regarding the cartel of ISPís discussing about blocking popular sites like Hotmail and Yahoo illustrates this attitude. If one were to carry the cartelís argument to logical conclusion, municipal corporations would have a right to stop newspaper delivery boys (who use their roads every morning to deliver newspapers). Some municipal corporations may also make laws that do not allow men having more than two children to use the roads. This sounds ridiculous but this is what ISPís have been planning and trying to do.

The role of ISPís is no different than that of private road companies who are building roads on a BOT basis across the country. A road company owns the road that it has built, but that does not give it right to regulate the rights of users. A road companyís ownership right over the road does not override basic constitutional rights of citizens. In the same way, in the virtual world, every Internet user has a right to access websites and send e-mails. ISPís have no authority to curtail this right except by a due process of law.

ISPís must realize that all bulk mail is not spamming. By definition, spamming is unsolicited unwanted non-personal mail. In USA, where there are laws to regulate spamming, a mail that allows the receiver to unsubscribe is not considered spamming. The reason for this is simple. If one does not send a message requesting to be removed from the mailing list, it is assumed that one wants to receive such mails. Indian public sector ISPís have gone a step beyond even US laws by banning all bulk mails.

Apparently, Indian public sector ISPís do not understand that there may be bulk mail that is not spamming. A significant portion of bulk mail may indeed be mail that one wants to receive. For example, sending a newbornís photographs to fifty friends and relatives is not spamming. Similarly, one may want to receive quarterly reports from the company whose shares are owned by one. In the true licence-raj style of Indian bureaucracy, BSNL and VSNL have banned all such messages.

The reincarnation of DOT as BSNL and the privatization of VSNL have meant that the new entities now organize music programmes. Each of them claims to have put on a customer friendly face. But just a different face does not help. They must learn that being marketing-savvy is about keeping the interests of oneís customers in mind in everything that one does. One has to learn to serve and not act as policeman or rationing officer. But then, old habits die hard.


1 August 2002

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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