European mobile phone operators are barred from showing third party advertisements on their customers' handsets because of a European directive, according to the U.K. Data Protection Commissioner (DPC).
"It would even be a breach of regulations if the customer had asked for the information," said Phil Jones, assistant commissioner at the DPC, an independent privacy regulator funded by the U.K. government.
"It's our view that the telecommunications provider under the directive is constrained from using billing information for third party marketing purposes," Jones said.
To transmit the commercial messages the operators have to use their customers' mobile phone numbers. The numbers are regarded as billing information.
Sending advertisements by SMS (Short Message Service) is just starting to take off in Europe. It is seen as an additional source of revenue by the mobile operators.
"It is all very new, we don't know how to handle this yet," said Martine Kooreman, a spokesperson for Koninklijke KPN NV, the largest mobile operator in the Netherlands. KPN is looking into a national code for mobile marketing to be set up by an independent organization.
DPC's Jones points to a difference between the operators and independent marketing companies. "It is completely different if a company independent from a telecommunications operator would offer services on a mobile phone," Jones said, adding that the independent company would need permission from the mobile user to send commercial messages.
The European directive in question -- 97/66/EC -- regulates marketing by telephone and fax and was issued in December 1997.
"We see mobile text messaging and data services as equal to a telephone call," Jones said.
The DPC doesn't oppose amending the European provision. " We don't see why a telecommunication company should be constrained in a way other companies aren't," Jones said. "If a mobile customer chooses to have advertisements, that is no problem for us."
The European Commission is currently working on a new telecoms directive, Jones said. This directive will cover all electronic communication.
The U.K. Data Protection Commissioner: http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk/.