Junk fax senders may face three-strikes rule

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 January, 2004, 12:00am

Telecoms services can be disconnected if three substantiated complaints are lodged under watchdog's voluntary code

Senders of junk faxes in Hong Kong may face a new 'three strikes and you're out' rule that could see their phone lines cut off if they pester people with advertising.

The telecoms watchdog has tightened guidelines and urged phone companies to suspend services to junk-fax senders if they have two substantiated complaints, and to disconnect them if they acquire three such grievances.

The code is voluntary, however, and despite receiving hundreds of complaints a year from customers last year about junk faxes, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) has thus far stopped short of calling for legislation against the practice.

It says it is conducting an industry-wide review in coming months to see if the persistent sending of unsolicited advertising faxes should be made a criminal offence as in the US, where the practice became a federal offence in 1991.

Last year, Ofta received 279 customer complaints about unsolicited advertising faxes clogging their phone lines, using up fax paper and toner, and often arriving in the middle of the night at home addresses.

A spokeswoman for Ofta was unable to provide figures for previous years but said complaints were increasing and the watchdog was 'concerned' about the problem. No time limit had been set on the review on legislation, she said.

Guidelines for fixed-line operators, senders and recipients of fax advertisements were first issued in July 1999 and recommended disconnecting phone lines of junk-fax offenders after five substantiated complaints.

A complaint is substantiated when a phone user or business asks to be taken off a sender's list but then continues to receive junk faxes.

Apart from the new guidelines covering line suspension and disconnection, Ofta has also provided a do-not-call list - to which phone users can add their names, if they want to block all unsolicited material - to the senders of fax advertisements to try to reduce nuisance complaints.

'I would like to emphasise that there is still no legislation prohibiting the sending of unsolicited or junk faxes, so these are mainly administrative measures in tackling the problem,' the Ofta spokeswoman said.

'Of course, we are concerned about the increase in complaints over junk faxes and we are conducting a review of the administrative process in dealing with the problem.

'It is quite a complex social issue so we may need time to come up with a decision on whether legislative measures should be introduced to deal with the problem.' Under the guidelines sent to senders of fax advertisements, they are being urged to restrict calls to office hours for business addresses and from 9am to 10pm for residential addresses.

They are also asked to restrict faxes to 'less than two pages a day' and to include a message in English and Chinese with a fax and telephone number for recipients to contact, if they want to be removed from the sender's list.

The Ofta's guidelines, however, also defend the right to send junk faxes, saying it has 'no intention' of prohibiting the practice.

The guidelines argue: 'The fax has been a very common and effective means of communication in Hong Kong and some of the recipients may find the fax advertisement useful.'