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Watchdog takes aim at premium-rate phone apps

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Mobile phone apps that send premium-rate texts, or make premium-rate calls, could be subject to fresh guidelines that have been drafted and published for public consideration.

PhonePayPlus, formerly ICSTIS, regulates services that are paid for using calls or messages sent to high-cost numbers, something which applications can do now – though not a lot take advantage of this. The organisation has drawn up the new guidelines as it expects an explosion in such apps, and is consulting on how such software should be regulated.

A good example would be a television show such as Big Brother or The X Factor. By downloading a mobile app, viewers could vote for (or against) contestants by selecting their image or name from within the app, rather than sending messages to a specific short code.

That simplicity should increase the number of votes, which is a big deal when the programmes are largely funded from the phoned-in voting, but it also risks users spending more money than they bargained for when every tap sends a premium-rated text message.

PhonePayPlus reckons each and every tap should be accompanied by a message explaining how much it is going to cost; it is not enough for the charges simply to appear on the bill or to be displayed just once – as a per-message rate – to the customer when they install the app.

The regulator also says that subscription services should not rely on users to uninstall applications. The draft guidelines state not only that uninstalling should remove any subscription obligation, but that it should also be possible to send a STOP message to the service – as with existing, SMS-based subscription services.

The proposals (PDF, really dull), are up for consultation until 5 December, but aren't very controversial – more of an update to existing guidelines than wholesale change. However, it will be very interesting to see how Apple responds if (or when) such apps take off. An iPhone app for The X Factor voting could use premium-rate texting to bypass Apple's 30-per-cent cut, but allowing Android users to vote when iPhone users can't would be bad PR.

It would also annoy Simon Cowell, which surely even Cupertino can't afford to do. ®

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