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Firms welcome exemption, but consumer watchdog laments 'back pedalling'

PDPC clarifies, saying one-off transaction doesn't warrant exemption and firms shouldn't market 'indiscriminately'


BUSINESSES such as telco StarHub welcomed the latest exemption to a ruling which would bar organisations from sending users telemarketing messages.

The exemption order introduced on Wednesday allows businesses to continue to send text or fax messages to their existing customers on related products and services, without the need to first check if the customers are listed in the Do-Not-Call Registry.

The exemption order had prompted consumer protests. In response to media queries about the exemption, the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) clarified yesterday that a "one-off transaction is not sufficient to constitute an ongoing relationship" that allows businesses to continue sending telemarketing messages.

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"Organisations must not rely on the exemption once the ongoing relationship has ceased. In addition, organisations must not rely on the exemption to market all other aspects of their business indiscriminately without considering the subject of the ongoing relationship," PDPC said.

The PDPC, which aims to safeguard individuals' personal data against misuse, said that the new exemption order would kick in next Thursday. This is when the Do Not Call (DNC) provisions come into force and businesses would have to check the registry to ensure they do not disturb consumers who have indicated that they do not want unsolicited calls, messages or faxes from telemarketers.

"We welcome this exemption, as it demonstrates that the PDPC takes a practicable approach to balance protection of customers, and practicality," Jeannie Ong, chief marketing officer at StarHub said.

Ms Ong was happy that customers who want to be kept updated of products and services from their existing service providers through SMS and fax will not need to separately opt in.

"This also enhances convenience to customers. At the same time, customers retain the full flexibility to opt out when they want to," she said.

The new exemption order does not apply to voice calls. Organisations are still required to check against the DNC Registry before making telemarketing calls to promote related products and services.

Head of marketing at Standard Chartered Singapore, Sharon Tan, said that the bank too welcomes the new DNC exemptions which give its customers a choice to keep themselves up to date with latest offers, promotions and rewards.

Managing director of The Skin Pharmacy, Mah Mei Hui, was relieved: "It's really good news in the sense that we don't actually have to sieve through the names of thousands of people on this registry and match them up on our own mailing list. So I guess in terms of manpower hours, it's quite a relief. Previously, we were supposed to do this every month, now with this exemption, it definitely frees up a lot of our time to do other things."

But while businesses have welcomed the move, some consumers have voiced their disappointment with the exemption.

"It took years of suffering by consumers, years of complaining, and many many months to implement. Yet on the eve of enforcement, this comes out," lamented one online.

Others feared the exemption would just provide a loophole for spams.

Another said that "having consumers opt out of telemarketing and then opt back in simply is nonsense and defies the very purpose of the Do Not Call registry".

The consumer watchdog called it a "back-pedalling of the law". "It's a sad day. The exemption means that PDPC has back-pedalled and diluted the intention of the DNC registry," said Seah Seng Choon, executive director of Consumers Association of Singapore.

"They are now allowing the businesses to spam consumers, who are now on their database. They have other means of doing this. E-mail is one option, and now with smartphones, you can see your e-mail anytime anywhere. So by providing this exemption, you are giving businesses another bite of the cherry, ignoring the consumer concern about receiving too many messages in their phone."

To-date, there are more than 350,000 registered unique numbers to the DNC Registry.

Those who have registered before July 2 will still receive calls and messages for up to 60 days upon registration. This is to allow time for companies to adjust.

An organisation that contravenes the DNC provisions in the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) will commit an offence and be liable on conviction for a fine of an amount not exceeding $10,000 for each offence.

Organisations that are in breach of any of the data protection provisions in the PDPA may be liable for a financial penalty of an amount not exceeding $1 million.