By Paul Wafula
Technology gurus have crafted a new Internet text message system to help politicians beat recent stringent measures adopted to curb the spread of hateful messages using mobile phones.
The racket makes a joke of a joint government initiative with local mobile operators to prevent a repeat of the 2007 post-poll violence.
The Standard has learnt that politicians or their supporters are already using the bulk messaging service to freely distribute unsolicited texts that border on hate political messages, just about 60 days to the next General Election.
One such message coming from a number +254 000 000, whose origin cannot be easily traced, states that one of the political candidates from the two alliances will ‘lose this coming election whichever way you look at it.’
The drafters of the message seen by The Standard used the recent data from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission on voter registration to support their argument on whoever would win, as it tried to convince the recipient using tribal arithmetic.
It was not possible to establish how many people received the message.
Multiple sources across the mobile industry said their responsibility is limited only as far as the message is emanating from their network or is being redistributed on their networks by licensed bulk SMS providers.
“It is possible to use messaging services such as Google where one can block their number or use a shared number to send the messages that are at times free of charge,” another source familiar with the workings of the bulk message services said.
A highly placed source within the mobile industry also said networks do not have the capacity to block messages sent through computers from users using bulk messaging services over the Internet, especially if sent from outside the country.
“We cannot stop inciters sending messages on our network using the Internet messaging services. But we can monitor who is resending them if they are registered and where they are doing it from,” the source who works in a technical department in one of the four mobile companies told The Standard.
The message was sent randomly to a mobile subscriber on the Safaricom network, which is Kenya’s biggest mobile operator with over 19 million customers, a signal that the racket is keen on reaching as many people as possible through the backdoor.
“As things currently stand, all networks are interconnected and so it is possible to send SMS messages from computers to mobile devices and other international SMS Centres,” Safaricom’s Head of PR and Communications Victoria Kaigai said in an e-mail interview.
Safaricom has also been at the centre of a joint campaign between mobile operators and the Government to ensure that telecom companies are not used to incite Kenyans in the run-up to the General Election.
The mobile operator said the initiative that it recently launched in partnership with the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) is aimed at ensuring that bulk SMS from local PRSP/CSP companies of an inappropriate nature are not sent through its network.
“These guidelines do not cover person to person SMS and therefore there still exists avenues for persons to send offensive messages. Any person receiving such messages should report this matter to police and the NCIC, which will investigate and bring charges against the person/s sending such messages,” Safaricom said.
On its part, Telkom Kenya said regulatory frameworks and mechanisms would be able to help, as was the case with the implementation of the guidelines to prevent undesirable political content via mobile network operators in September 2012.
“This would require direction from the CCK. At the end of the day, however, the underlying issue is the responsible use of ICT resources, in this case the use of voice and data. More awareness creation on the same should be initiated if these vices are to be put in check,” Telkom Kenya Chief Executive Mickael Ghossein said in an e-mail interview. We were not able to get an official comment from the CCK by the time we went to press.
This is now set to pile fresh pressure on the sector regulator, which in the recent months issued guidelines restricting sending of bulk unsolicited messages in a bid to fight cases of hate speech and incitements. Consumers were to only receive messages from sources they have accepted and can opt out when they want.
It also comes at a time when the CCK is enforcing the SIM card registration, which compels mobile operators to keep a register of the people they provide services to. The scheme also promises to water down all this initiative that have gobbled millions of shillings to get consumers to register SIM cards.
CCK said by last Friday, 80.4 per cent of the 30 million SIM cards had been registered. Safaricom had 2.9 million subscribers unregistered out of its 19.6 million subscribers. Airtel had not registered 822,526 out of 4.7 million subscribers. To register SIM cards, subscribers are required to give their full names, physical and postal addresses, date of birth, and physical and alternative contacts to the service providers.