Premium rate operators must not abuse social network info, warns regulator

Premium rate phone companies must be careful not to abuse the personal data available on social networking sites when marketing their services, the premium-rate regulator has said.

PhonepayPlus (PPP) has said that premium rate services are increasingly being marketed on social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, but that companies must ensure that personal data published on the sites is not abused.

"If you, or any of your clients are promoting phone paid services through [social networking] channels, we feel that it is important to advise that you/they do not manipulate the personal data available on the social networking site to make a statement that is untrue, as we are likely to view this service as misleading," it said in a briefing statement to operators and marketing companies.

"For example, users should not be invited to participate in a phone-paid service on the grounds that their friend ‘John Smith’ has challenged them to an IQ quiz, when ‘John Smith’ has never participated in the service," it said.

The regulator said that it would view such behaviour as 'misleading' and therefore in breach of its Code of Practice.

PPP also warned that companies are responsible for the marketing of their services even when it is conducted by other companies or affiliates.

"As more and more mobile phone-paid services, especially subscriptions, are promoted on the web, it is increasingly likely that some, or all, of the web-based promotion will be undertaken by an affiliate partner of an information provider. In fact, this is something we are already starting to see," it said.

PPP said that affiliate marketers must not use the word 'free' inappropriately when trying to gain subscribers for a service. It said that they should not advertise something as 'free' that actually requires a subscription.

The regulator also warned marketers against manipulating profile information on social networking sites to mislead customers into purchasing services.

Recent decisions have penalised firms who place terms and conditions for services in hard-to-reach parts of the screen, PPP said. "[Companies should] ensure that consumers do not have to scroll, regardless of screen resolution, to view the key terms and conditions of a service," it said.

PPP also gave operators advice on how to structure the process of asking consumers to opt in to services online, "given the risks associated with web opt-in, and the difficulty in proving that a consumer has validly opted into a service where they have opted in via a website".

It said that any online opt-in should include: a statement about whether content will be displayed on the next screen or sent to a handset; a paragraph summarising terms and conditions including cost; an unchecked box which must be ticked to confirm agreement with the terms; and a 'submit' button.