It was only a matter of time before this happened - another unfortunate collision of technology with the telephone. I got a call at home at about 19:30 from a company on the pretext of asking about satellite dishes. Nothing strange about that, other than the fact that the number called is registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which is meant to stop unsolicited telemarketing calls. And the voice at the other end was a recording played by a computer. That was more worrying, especially when my silence at its first question (did I receive satellite TV through a dish) was met with a "Hello, hello are you still there?" before the machine cut the call off.
One of the things that puts a limit on how many cold calls you get comes down to the cost of paying people to talk to supposedly potential customers. That has become a major factor as the cost of placing calls has shrunk rapidly. With a computer doing all of the work, suddenly the marginal cost of placing each call plummets, even compared with farming out those jobs to low-wage countries. Letting computers call people without your expressed permission is something that needs to be stopped. In principle, it is already illegal in the UK. But that is not what Data Partnership Solutions of East Sussex believes.
Data Partnership Solutions was the company responsible for the call. To be fair to the company, it did not block its number (0870 240 2559) and the rep who answered the phone at the other end did not give me the usual runaround on identifying the company. His first question was, did I want the address in order to make a complaint? I didn't take notes of the brief conversation, but I think we reached that point before I even mentioned the TPS. The East Sussex address given, by the way, checks out and there is a company registered under the name Data Partnership Solutions at a nearby address at Companies House (albeit a bit late with its first accounts).
However, when I did mention the TPS, his response was: "Well, these calls are surveys rather than sales calls, so they aren't really covered by the TPS." Having said that, he asked if my number was to be taken off the list or, rather, added to the "do not call" list. I said yes and that was more or less the end of the call.
Then I went and checked, as much as you can at 8pm at night, what the situation is with automated calls. I dimly remembered UK legislation being passed to outlaw automated calls - being the main reason why you don't get pestered by recordings of breezy people flogging rip-off holidays in Florida from the UK, only from other countries.
Here's the relevant bit of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, which came into effect at the end of 2003:
19. (1) A person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, communications comprising recorded matter for direct marketing purposes by means of an automated calling system except in the circumstances referred to in paragraph (2).
(2) Those circumstances are where the called line is that of a subscriber who has previously notified the caller that for the time being he consents to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the caller on that line.
For the purposes of this regulation, an automated calling system is a system which is capable of -
(a) automatically initiating a sequence of calls to more than one destination in accordance with instructions stored in that system; and
(b) transmitting sounds which are not live speech for reception by persons at some or all of the destinations so called.
No need to invoke the TPS. It's the law that a robot can't call you without asking you first. Wait a minute - that's "a robot can't call you" for direct marketing purposes. Now, in my book, a survey about what sort of television I receive is pretty much a telemarketing call. It's not a sales call, but the company at the other end wants to know information about my spending. That puts it squarely into the marketing domain for me. This is the point where I regret not just giving the robot a bunch of useless replies to see if it transmuted into a sales call. My guess is that the final part of the call is for you to say "please tell me more", at which point you invite that company to place that sales call.
I suspect this and other companies will probe this apparent loophole until they get told to stop, if they get told to stop. And, if it is the case that companies can trouble you up cheaply using machines under the pretext of "research", then the 2003 regulations need to be tightened up. If not, we need not worry about VoIP spam - it will just hit you using the regular telephone service.
To try to help that process along, it's next stop Ofcom for me.