Will AI-Powered Spam Filters Be Forced on Indian Telcos?

Several of the world’s largest telcos serve the Indian public, so the world should pay attention to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) suggesting telcos should use artificial intelligence to block what TRAI refers to as unsolicited commercial communications (UCC) and what everyone else refers to as ‘spam’. However, details about the systems being considered in India remain scant. India already has a track record of using innovative technology to tackle spam, including mixed success with distributed ledger technology (DLT) to record and limit the use of voice and SMS for marketing messages. Continued public frustration has shown that more needs to be done to reduce spam. A press release dated March 22 briefly describes the agenda for a meeting about spam between the Chairman of TRAI, Dr. P. D. Vaghela (pictured) and all of India’s telcos.

As part of a multipronged approach to address this problem through Technical solutions, regulations, directions & close monitoring a meeting with all access providers on the development & implementation of UCC detect solutions by them will be held under the chairmanship of Dr. P.O. Vaghela, Chairman TRAI at TRAI office, New Delhi on 27th March 2023.

Exploitation of the DLT platform to bring all access providers together on it with respect to UCC detect solutions will be a positive step in this direction.

The formulation of a framework for sharing of UCC data detected by access providers on DLT platform, strict action on PEs [principal entities, the enterprises that may initiate marketing messages as registered with India’s marketing DLT] and RTMs [registered telemarketers, the communications businesses which act on behalf of PEs] for non-compliance of Regulation, use of AI/ML based anti-phishing system, implementation of RegTech solution on DLT platform for promotional Voice calls, implementation of Digital Consent Acquisition & updates of the ‘Regulatory Sandbox’ established for UCC Detect will be discussed in the meeting.

TRAI has seemingly not published any record of the meeting or what was decided, and India’s media tends to massively exaggerate any regulatory initiative to tackle spam so it is necessary to maintain a degree of skepticism when reading their account of the outcomes from the meeting. Nevertheless, The Economic Times reported that Indian telcos were given until May 1 to ‘review’ the use of AI/ML to detect spam, without providing any further details about what was being reviewed or how such a system would work. That deadline has now passed without any new announcement from either the regulator or any of the telcos.

Professionals need to be wary of being suckered by the same kind of hype that is fed to the public. Journalists write stories about tackling voice and SMS spam because they are prime clickbait; spam annoys a lot of people so any headline about ‘getting tough’ or ‘cracking down’ on spam will grab plenty of attention. The downside is that poor reporting means many distinct techniques are all mushed together in the imagination of the public, with the result that nobody holds regulators accountable for which of their anti-spam regulations proved effective and which were expensive flops.

Any story about artificial intelligence will also pique the public’s interest, especially in the wake of Chat-GPT, so it is inevitable that AI is being hailed as a potential solution to spam. What we lose is a crucial nuance: the kind of pattern-matching performed by artificial intelligence will never be 100 percent accurate. Regulators that propose AI-powered spam blocks are effectively conceding existing registers of permitted marketing communications, as exemplified by India’s telemarketing DLT, have also failed to be 100 percent reliable or are not being 100 percent enforced. Before we rush to throw yet more layers of technology at the problem of spam, we should enquire why past initiatives have disappointed and if their flaws have been identified and addressed.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.