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Hong Kong government cracks down on cold-calling with new do-not-call register proposal

Its move implies telemarketers who call numbers on the register may be subject to legal sanctions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 10:02am

After more than a decade of public pressure to get tough on telemarketers making cold calls, the government has proposed to set up a statutory do-not-call register managed by Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog to screen out nuisance callers. 

The move implies telemarketers may be subject to legal sanctions if they continue to call numbers listed on the register by people who do not want to be disturbed. 

The government already runs a do-not-call register that was set up in 2007 to shut out unsolicited electronic messages and recorded calls, but officials have resisted widespread demands to expand the register to also block person-to-person calls. 

Rampant cold calling by telemarketers in Hong Kong could become a criminal act

A key reason cited by authorities in the past was the prospect of an estimated 20,000 telemarketers losing their jobs, but that was back in 2014, and it was not addressed in the latest proposal by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau. A public consultation on the issue conducted from May to July last year gathered more than 3,700 written responses.

A document prepared for a Legislative Council panel on information technology and broadcasting shows that the bureau wants to ban telemarketers from calling people without their prior consent.

The plan is to have the privacy commissioner act as a one-stop shop to administer the statutory register and enforce the new rule. 

The bureau rejected suggestions to have telemarketers use designated prefixes that could be identified in advance by people receiving their calls, saying marketers could call from numbers without such prefixes, and from outside the city.

Cold calling in Hong Kong is so out of control, it makes you contemplate murder

The bureau also said it was “mindful that the scope for person-to-person calls has to be clearly and accurately defined” so that hospitals or other public service departments that needed to reach people urgently could still do so even with the regulations in place. 

“In other words, there is a need to provide for the making of ‘non-marketing’ calls to individuals whose numbers are on the do-not-call register,” it said.

Some lawmakers welcomed the government’s move, but asked if the privacy watchdog would have enough power and resources to enforce the law, handle complaints and initiate prosecutions.

Lawmaker Charles Mok, who represents the information technology sector, said it was a good idea to have the privacy watchdog handle enforcement. He suggested it would do a better job than the Communications Authority, which has had a low success rate in prosecuting offenders under the existing Unsolicited Electronic Messages Ordinance.

Mok also called for the watchdog to be given enough manpower and funding to execute its additional legal duties.

Do-not-call register as law the best option to protect personal data in Hong Kong, privacy chief says

Lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen, from the pro-establishment Federation of Trade Unions, said she did not expect a large number of job losses as a result, citing a previous government survey showing that telemarketers realised the limited success of cold calling to sell products. 

Nelson Ip Sai-hung, founding chairman of the Federation of Beauty Industry, said people in his sector were worried about getting into trouble for making “warm calls” to clients they already knew if the new measure was adopted. 

The bureau said 89 per cent of people who had submitted views during the public consultation supported adopting a legislative approach and 86 per cent were in favour of the do-not-call register.