17 February 2020
It is estimated that around a third of Hong Kong people receive unsolicited marketing calls on a daily basis. Authorities are accused of not doing enough to combat the nuisance. Photo: Bloomberg
It is estimated that around a third of Hong Kong people receive unsolicited marketing calls on a daily basis. Authorities are accused of not doing enough to combat the nuisance. Photo: Bloomberg

Why the government won’t act on junk calls

How many junk calls do you receive each day? On good days I get just one but often a great many more. It is estimated that around a third of Hongkongers are bothered by these calls; in other words this nuisance involves literally millions of calls that we could do without.

In 2015 the government commissioned a study to discover the extent of this problem, but as ever, when the bureaucracy does not want to do something it made sure that the results matched its desire for inaction.

Hence, the study was confined to so-called ‘warm calls’, involving people who have previously used or expressed interest in the product being offered as opposed to the far more widespread ‘cold calls’ that are purely random and made regardless of whether an interest in the product has been expressed.

I take issue with this distinction because, for example, if I have purchased a telephone package, there is no reason for me to be bothered by someone trying to sell a rival package.

Anyway, this distinction served to allow the ‘specialists’ to conclude that only 210,000 calls were made per day and hence it was hardly a problem.

Obviously this is nonsense and the government is currently launching another of its infamous consultation exercises to discover whether the public wants anything done. Like 99.9 percent of other Hongkongers I had no idea that this exercise was underway so I am not surprised to learn that only some 100 responses have been received.

However thanks to a campaign called, led by legislator Charles Mok and Willam Wu, the existence of this consultation exercise has been given more publicity. They are also responsible for the calculations over the extent of this problem given above.

Incidentally, the consultation period ends in July: submissions can be made by clicking on this link: [email protected].

The consultation exercise is accompanied by a 35 page document, written in typically unintelligible ‘bureaucratese’ which describes junk calls as ‘person-to-person telemarketing calls’ and points out that action to tackle this problem was taken as far back 2010 when a ‘benchmark code of practice’ was devised to encourage telemarketers to clean up their act.

Of course the document uses much more convoluted language to make this point and claims that the situation has improved thanks to the existence of this code.

The document also points out that as far back as in 2007 a law was introduced – The Unsolicited Electronic Messages Ordinance – to control the sending of faxes and SMS messages as well as pre-recorded telephone calls but not so-called P2P calls. This ancient technology law has — surprise, surprise — not been updated.

The document also admits that 96 percent of those surveyed two years ago regarded junk calls as a nuisance but nothing was done on the grounds that ’7,000 employees were engaged in the trade’ and so ‘it would be prudent to weigh the economic and social impact on employment and normal business activities in a free society against the public’s aspiration for a tighter regulatory regime for telemarketing’.

Clearly the bureaucrats were scraping the barrel in the search for excuses to justify their inaction. It defies belief that the government is using the absurd idea that in a society with virtually full employment, abuse of the public can be justified by pointing to job losses.

There is a great deal of other blah, blah, blah in this document and the inevitable official warning that nothing can be done quickly. However there is a quick fix and it is even mentioned in the consultation paper.

That fix consists of making junk calls illegal unless the person receiving them has placed his or her name on a register giving permission for such calls. Obviously there are ways round a law like this as there are always round all manner of laws.

However a raft of prosecutions of companies whose products are sold in this way would quickly persuade them to desist. This might involve prosecuting some of Hong Kong’s biggest banks and telecommunications companies. Perhaps here lies the explanation of why officials are so reluctant to act.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author