Sidelining SMS bullies is a numbers game, say tech firms

31 Jul 2008

If emerging Irish technology companies have their way, consumers will soon be able to avoid receiving text messages from bullies and stalkers by blocking their numbers.

These companies have developed solutions that, they say, will alleviate the problems associated with SMS bullying by allowing numbers to be blocked or words to be filtered.

At the moment, the only practical ways to avoid receiving nasty messages from a particular source are to change your number or stop using your phone.

Because the perpetrator is often anonymous, SMS bullying is potentially very damaging to victims. Equally, it can get out of hand because those sending messages don’t see victims’ reactions and might think it’s all a bit of fun. Add to this the fact that young people are not inclined to tell an adult about abusive texts and things get even darker.

The recently released nationwide study, Cyberbullying amongst Post-Primary Students, carried out by Trinity College Dublin’s Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABRR), on behalf of the Irish Independentand Prime Time Investigates, shows that some 16.5pc of students reported having received an abusive text message outside of school in the past couple of months, while some 10.7pc said they sent such a message.

Michael O’Brien’s company Openmind Networks is located across the road from the ABRR, which is more than a coincidence. “I had discussions with Dr Mona O’Moore, head of the centre, and it became clear little was being done in the area of preventing abusive texts.

“Parental control doesn’t work well with teenagers, as it impinges on their right for freedom of expression. It drives the problem underground because teenagers will get second or third SIMs to avoid parents’ interference,” he says.

O’Brien developed Openmind’s core products ‘Traffic Control’ and ‘Protect’ to empower victims to block, store and report abusive messages to a regulated third party. To date, two mobile operators outside of Ireland have adopted the solution, he says.

“Our customer in the Middle East opted for keyword removal. Protect inspects all messages entering the network and checks for content that is undesirable. Depending on the configurable rules, it will either block or remove it. The second customer in central Europe didn’t want its subscriber base bombarded with spam coming up to an election, so text messages containing certain keywords were blocked.”

Meanwhile, the ‘Kidsafe’ product from Sentry Wireless is specifically designed for parents who want to have control over who their children can communicate with by mobile phone. It was launched at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in February and already has one deployment in Singapore. Sentry Wireless is a high-potential start-up located in the Digital Depot in Dublin.

“Kidsafe allows parents to approve a list of numbers a child can contact or be contacted by. It takes less than a minute to approve them and, once that’s done, these are the only people the child can be in touch with. Usually, the parent approves 30 to 40 names,” says Matt Norton, Sentry Wireless chief executive.

“It’s important to have a preventative, rather than reactive, solution to the problem of bullying by text message. Up to a year ago, operators would have had to make a huge investment to introduce similar solutions; this is now easy to implement without any pain. It is SIM-card software involving zero integration with any part of the operator’s network.”

Similar to the drinks industry, mobile phone operators strive to be seen as promoting responsible and ethical use of their products. They joined forces in 2005 to bring out A Parent’s Guide to Mobile Phones, an updated version of which will come out this autumn, according to Tommy McCabe, director of the Irish Cellular Industry Association.

As regards introducing the types of services described in this article, McCabe says operators will only take software solutions on board that they feel have been properly tried and tested.

“Operators will use packages they feel will be beneficial to their customers, but they don’t want to start using something and then find out it’s blocking numbers customers want to receive messages from.”

Mobile operators don’t seem averse to the idea of number blocking services being introduced in Ireland in the future. For example, O2’s  response was: “O2 is always interested to learn of new developments of this nature”, while 3 said: “We would be more than happy to meet with technology companies to discuss such solutions.”

By Sorcha Corcoran