For some time now, Sri Lanka’s mobile phone users have been charged for value added services that a majority of them did not knowingly subscribe for or want. It is not clear how long the scam has been going on. The service providers are vague, the regulator only just found out, and there is no [...]


Mobiles: If they are smart, be smarter


For some time now, Sri Lanka’s mobile phone users have been charged for value added services that a majority of them did not knowingly subscribe for or want. It is not clear how long the scam has been going on. The service providers are vague, the regulator only just found out, and there is no evidence that anyone at ministerial level knows or cares. According to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, the country still has no laws to tackle the issue.

On the one hand, the Government is picking pockets through the illegal Value Added Tax (charged even before the levy was approved in Parliament). Now we find telecommunication companies doing it and getting clean away, laughing all the way to the bank.

This sort of third-party billing is commonly described as “cramming”. In Sri Lanka, it occurs when mobile phone companies enter into partnerships with third parties who inveigle consumers into enlisting for services they were not even aware of, typically through the internet.

The 2015 Central Bank Annual report places mobile phone penetration at a whopping 116 percent. There are more mobile phones in Sri Lanka than there are people! Admittedly, a large number of these are traditional instruments and not smart phones that enable internet access. This would indicate that the number of mobile phone users affected by unauthorised charges for value-added services is lower than it might have been.

But the use of smart phones is growing, encouraged by service providers offering discounted phones but standing to gain from increased use of mobile applications and data. One mobile phone company is even providing smart phones on easy payment terms with a view to widening internet penetration. All this is well and good, but the regulatory and consumer protection component of exploding mobile phone usage has just not kept up. The Consumer Protection Authority is neither protecting nor has the authority, it seems.

Mobile service providers make hefty profits; a cursory glance at their annual accounts provides ample proof of that. One company has routinely made around Rs. 5-6 billion in net profit each year for the past several years. A significant area of growth is value-added services. This means that, unless the regulator steps in, more and more customers will find themselves mired in the scam. But the regulator itself is clueless. And the politicians even more.

No world peace with blood money

In New York, USA this week World leaders were welcomed by twin bomb blasts in the city (that never sleeps) bringing to them the message that all is not well with the world they govern.

And if that happened outside the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, inside the august assembly none other than the head of the 192 member-state organisation, Ban Ki-moon let fly, rather uncharacteristically and somewhat belatedly the following words: “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syrian conflict against Syrian civilians”.

No truer words have been uttered by the Secretary General of the UN, and sadly these scathing remarks fell short of naming – and shaming, the obvious culprits involved in the raging, virtual Armageddon in Syria. The fact that the UNSG who, in typical style of his countrymen indulges in self-criticism, blaming the world body he heads for inaction in the world’s war zones made these remarks only at the end of his second five-year term, is a shame. He could have been more assertive after his re-election as SG. One only hopes as an act of penance, he doesn’t do what many of his countrymen do and jump off the UN building, particularly if he has set his sights on being the next President of South Korea.

US President Barack Obama also hit round the podium, so to say, in his valedictory address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, accusing Russia of wanting to win back its lost Empire (a reference to arming anti-Government troops in Ukraine – but not saying that the West backed an anti-Government people’s movement to topple the former regime in Ukraine and now supports anti-Government troops in Syria). He hit out at China for wanting a market economy (capitalism) without the attendant individual liberties (democracy) and took a swipe at his own domestic political rivals. World leaders who followed him to the podium blamed everyone, but themselves, for all the world’s problems.

The fact that the world leaders had to have a summit to discuss the refugee problem caused by the wars in West Asia and the economic depravity in other parts of the world due to unequal playing fields, spoke louder of the reality that the UN which was formed in the aftermath of World War II to end all wars has succumbed to the world’s powerful arms trade. That the Generals have won over Diplomats; the Hawks over the Doves.

Pope Francis set the stage for the assembly of world leaders in New York when he said in not far away Washington DC last month while addressing the US Congress, the first time a Pope has done so, that those behind the arms market should be ashamed of themselves for bringing about the misery that exists around the world. He made it plain: “Here we have to ask ourselves; why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering to individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply money, money that is drenched in blood, often of innocent blood”.

The Pope called it “shameful” that the arms trade continues in the way it does – and he told it to US politicians who are recipients of their contributions – in an election year. The arms merchants and contractors have donated US$ 25 billion to parties and candidates in the 2013-2014 election cycle of US politics and so far in 2016 up to US$ 5.9 billion – a fraction of the profits they reap from this bloody industry.

President Obama also did make a passing reference to this arms industry and asked delegates how much financial assistance the US can give to the world at large from even a fraction of the monies it spends in its military budget in Iraq.

The talk shop that is the United Nations General Assembly will wind up next week and it will be the business of killing and maiming and the destruction of property – and refugees spilling all over as usual, thereafter. The flip-side of it all is; what if there is no United Nations to even talk – of world peace.

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