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Government pulls plug on sex line abuse

Time's up for exorbitant internet connections swissinfo.ch

The authorities are clamping down on internet sites, particularly erotic ones, which charge exorbitant rates to unsuspecting customers.

This content was published on February 4, 2004 - 15:28

The Federal Communications Office (Ofcom) is banning companies from automatically connecting web users at premium rates without their knowledge.

The ban will run from April 1 and should bring down incidences of abuse, which have been rising steadily since 2002.

Last year alone, officials registered nearly 2,000 complaints about webdiallers, many involving unusually large telephone bills.

According to Ofcom, access to some websites via a premium rate or 090- number can cost as much SFr300 ($240) for just 20 seconds.

The government, which allocates premium-rate numbers, will have the power to revoke them should a firm ignore the ban.

Ofcom has also published a booklet, entitled “Numbers that Cost”, warning of the consequences of dialling 090- numbers.

In Switzerland, premium-rate numbers are used to offer services in the fields of business and marketing (0900), games and competitions (0901) and adult entertainment (0906).

Conned

“The opening of the telecommunications market has brought a lot of innovation but has also attracted a lot of swindlers,” said Marc Furrer, director of Ofcom, at a press conference on Wednesday.

A webdialler is essentially a software programme used to connect a personal computer to the internet via a modem.

The problem is that, with some websites, this can happen without the user realising how much this could cost.

Often the first time a surfer becomes aware that he or she was connected via a premium rate line is when the phone bill arrives.

A typical example would be an erotic website which asks surfers if they “want to see more” by clicking a box without having to use a credit card. The user is under the mistaken impression that he or she is not being charged extra.

Under the new rules, if the cost of an 090- connection is more than SFr2 a minute, the user must be informed. Where the price per minute is over SFr5, the customer must confirm that he or she accepts the tariff before being connected.

Erotic turn-off

The Swiss division of Germany's erotic conglomerate, Beate Uhse, said it faced losing 80 per cent of its online business once the ban was in place.

The company's entertainment division, which comprises all the group's European telephone, internet and TV activites, generated €23.8 million ($30 million) in 2002.

Head of marketing Jan Brönnimann told swissinfo that the company did not understand why Ofcom had decided on an outright ban.

“[Ofcom's] reaction is completely useless because banning these diallers is not solving the problem - the dialler itself is actually a good way to let the customer pay... it’s just like if a car is driving too fast, you don’t ban all automobiles,” said Brönnimann.

He told swissinfo that his firm had been in recent talks with Ofcom about clamping down on illegal activities by Beate Uhse competitors but they had clearly “not worked out”.

Greater transparency

Brönnimann agrees that transparency in the field that Ofcom is trying to regulate is important.

“If you are using a dialler, the customer has to know exactly what he is paying for and how much it will cost, and he must know about and want to establish a connection to a premium-rate number.”

The company will now examine whether there are any legal grounds for challenging the government's decision.

The Swiss Information and Communications Technology Association took action against abuses of 090- numbers last year.

Its members - among them telecoms operators Swisscom, Orange and Bluewin - agreed in October to a set of rules, including restricting tariffs and blocking access to 090- services.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

sex lines

Ofcom received more than 2,000 complaints about excessive 090- bills.
117 licences were revoked.
The government has issued a booklet warning the public of the consequences of premium rate calls.

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