Spam Soon To Be Banned in Oman

The Telecommunication Regulatory Authority has finally decided to address the issue of spam in Oman and is now in the process of drafting new regulations that will make it illegal for anyone to send unsolicited advertisements by any electronic method in Oman without acquiring prior consent from the person to whom the advertisement is sent.

Spam has been slowly growing into a problem in Oman due to the realisation of many companies of the ease at which advertisements can be pushed to a large number of people at extremely low costs. Many companies see this as an opportunity to promote their products, but from the point of view of consumers, this constitutes a breach of their privacy and can affect the way they use e-mail and SMS. These messages can be extremely repetitive, irrelevant, sent at inappropriate times, impossible to block, and make it very difficult for users to reach messages that they need to read, when their inbox is filled with unsolicited spam advertisements.

The current law in Oman does not provide individuals the right to stop others from sending them unsolicited advertisements. The telecommunications law only prohibits offensive, untrue or harmful messages, and not genuine advertisements that were sent without consent. The Basic Law of the State is the closest document we have in Oman to a constitution. It guarantees many rights for individuals such as the right for the freedom of expression and right for religious freedom, but it does not guarantee privacy as a right for individuals in Oman.

A report by Symantec last year, claiming that Oman had the highest percentage of spam messages in the whole world coming into the country, led the TRA to make statements soon after that it will work on combating spam. TRA is now working on new regulations for combating spam that will make it illegal for any person in Oman to send advertisements by any electronic method to anyone without acquiring the explicit prior consent of that person, and anyone who violates these new regulations may be fined up to RO1,000.

TRA will consider a message to be spam message for which the sender will be penalised, even if only one message was sent to one person, as long as that message was an unsolicited advertisement. The only exception to this rule is when an existing relationship can be established between the sender and recipient, such as the relationship between a hospital and patient. Even in such circumstances, individuals will have the right to have such messages stopped and an offence would be committed if a message is sent after an individual has indicated his wish to not receive any more of these messages.

Even though it will be impossible to stop all spam messages coming into the country, it is a great development for Oman to have in place local regulations that ban the transmission of spam in the country and one which would help ensure that local companies do not participate in this unacceptable practice. It will also surely provide us consumers with great comfort knowing that we can use our e-mail accounts more efficiently and that we can finally stop these ridiculous SMS about the latest gym discounts.

The public consultation period for new spam regulations had just finished last week. It is unknown how long it would take TRA to issue these regulations, but when they do come, these regulations would surely fill a serious gap in the telecom regulatory framework in Oman.


Public Consultation on Anti-Spam Regulations

The TRA has finally decided to take action about the spread of spam in Oman and is seeking public consultation about their upcoming anti-spam regulations [PDF].

The new proposed regulations will require businesses to have the explicit consent of any person to whom they send a commercial message using any medium. The regulations will provide an exception for institutions that have an existing relationship with a person and will enable individuals to have the right to stop receiving such messages.

The TRA is proposing a system where an offense would be established even if only one message has been sent without consent, will provide individuals with the right to complain to the TRA, and will provide the TRA with the right to impose sanctions that include imposing a financial penalty not less than RO 1000.

The regulations will also provide guidelines as to the content of the message, its size, and will require the header to include words such as “Commercial” or “ad”.

These regulations are still in the public consultation stage and there is no guarantee that they will be officially passed.

You can read the PDF document issued for public consultation at this link. The last date for submitting your opinion on these documents is the 25th of July.


Indian Censorship in Oman

If you are a fan of Bollywood films and happen to be a user of Omantel’s home broadband service, you might be surprised to find that a number of websites that cover such films are blocked in Oman, not because the Omani government has anything against them, but because the Indian government has decided that such websites need to be blocked.

Censorship in Oman is not as big a problem as it is in some of the neighbouring countries. The most irritating aspect about censorship in Oman is the restriction on VoIP services such as Skype, but no other major website such as Blogger, Wikipedia, YouTube, or Flickr is blocked in the country.

Censorship in Oman is about to get unpredictably complex as a report by the OpenNet Initiative has found evidence of the inaccessibility of a number of websites in Oman due to the routing practices of Omantel.

According to the OpenNet Initiative, Omantel has signed a number of agreements with an Indian Internet service provider for traffic peering that allows Omantel and the Indian service provider to share their traffic with the intention of improving the performance and reliability of the service provided by both ISPs. This means that when a user in Oman attempts to open a website, his request might be routed from Omantel to the Indian ISP and then to the Worldwide Web.

An unintended consequence of this practice is that an Omani user will not be able to access a website if it is blocked in India and Omantel decided to route that request through the Indian ISP. For example, an attempt to visit and from an Omantel connection would come up with a page that says, “This website/URL has been blocked until further notice either pursuant to court orders or on the directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications”.

So now not only websites that violate Omani law are blocked in Oman, but even websites that violate Indian law will also be blocked in Oman. This is surely unacceptable, because even though Oman does censor the Internet on its own, India also has had a history of unreasonable censorship of websites that exceeds that seen in Oman, in some instances. For example, the whole of Yahoo Groups was previously blocked, and more recently, the video website Vimeo has also been blocked.

Internet users should have the right to access all websites as long as these websites do not violate Omani law, and it really does not make sense that Omani Web users have to go through the lengthy and cumbersome process of getting each website blocked by the Indian government, unblocked.

The Telecommunication Regulation Authority in Oman should consider policies relating to peering agreements between Internet service providers in the country and those outside, and ensure that such agreements do not impose further content restrictions on the accessibility of the Internet in Oman.