Sucheta Dalal :Paranoid companies
Sucheta Dalal

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Paranoid companies  

Sep 24, 2006

The unfolding story of global technology major Hewlett Packard’s paranoid attempt to plug a leak of corporate information has claimed a major victim. HP Chairman Patricia C. Dunn resigned over the weekend, but there are still too many questions about the role of CEO Mark V Hurd in setting up the dubious sting operation that still remain unanswered. HP’s modus operandi included getting phone records of several journalists and employees under false pretexts and setting up a decoy in the form of a fictitious, disgruntled employee to trick a CNET journalist into revealing her source. The idea was to gain her trust and then send her an email with an embedded ‘software tracer’ that would allow it to detect who she forwards the email to. The unravelling of this bizarre scheme has already led to a federal investigation into the legality of HP’s actions at different levels of management. But this is not the first time that a powerful American MNC has illegally tapped phones or intimidated journalists. Over a decade ago, Wall Street Journal correspondent Alicia Swassy’s book Soap Opera had documented how Proctor & Gamble spied on her, wire-tapped her phones and extracted millions of phone records to find out which of its employees were talking to her. Spying on the media by big business is not unknown in India either, but these days the tactics of intimidating journalists are a little different.


Need debate


The RBI committee on ensuring the fairness of bank charges that was released last week has been fairly even-handed it in recommendations — it has accepted some demands of consumer groups and some of banks. So it frowned on ‘stealth’ charges and a plethora of unfair charges levied by banks (book-keeping charges, no-transaction charges etc), but has supported their claim for charging processing fees, even when loans are rejected. The central bank needs to study this fee in greater detail and address three issues: First, banks charge processing fees, but are not obliged to explain the reason for rejecting loans. This is patently unfair, especially since top bankers openly admit that some categories of professionals are on their negative list. They include lawyers, chartered accountants, relatives of politicians, journalists and in one case even single women.


Secondly, fees paid to direct selling agents come out of the ‘processing fee’ so the RBI must ensure that agents do not make false promises and give people the run-around merely to collect processing fees. Thirdly, customers say that since processing fees are charged as a percentage of the loan, the difference must be refunded if the sanctioned loan is less the amount sought. The RBI also needs to take a closer look at all procedures pertaining to mortgages including the closing of accounts.


DNC registry


In another customer-friendly action, the RBI had asked all banks to create Do Not Call (DNC) registries on their website; yet, customers continue to complain about harassment through marketing calls. Most customers find it tedious to file a separate DNC registration for each bank and would like the RBI to work towards a common DNC registration.


However, a top banker says that while banks have indeed complied with RBI regulations and created DNCs, many have still to put in place the back-end processes to stop calling people who have registered their numbers. Until then, some banks have temporarily stopped the cold-call-direct-pitch approach, a few others avoid calling mobile phones which attract the most outrage, Citibank has set up its own internal call centre and a few banks continue to call people in the hope that there will not be too many complaints. Prabha Krishnan a harassed consumer says —why do we have to be harassed first and then go through hell and high water to “register’’ not to be harassed?


Isn’t the present system akin to saying that if a woman does not want to be molested she should register with a Do Not Touch registry? Maybe the central bank will see the issue differently when put that way.


Broad differences


Two public sector organisations that are often seen as the right candidates for a possible marriage are Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL). While the first caters to Mumbai and Delhi, BSNL has a nationwide footprint barring these metros. However comparisons of service standards would be a serious mistake. MTNL has delighted consumers by offering local rates between the two metros, efficient dial-up connectivity to the Internet and a broad-band service (Triband) that is by far superior to those offered by its private sector competitors. Its modem and router are pre-programmed and the start-up process is literally a simple plug-in. The rush of subscribers has made its on-line help service almost inaccessible during the day, but its operators politely and patiently lead you through the trouble-shooting process even late into the night. In contrast, BSNL’s broadband is a nightmare to subscribe. It is needlessly burdened with red tape and convoluted configuration requirements; worse, even simple (but more expensive) dial-up connectivity is not available to people because of registration requirements in each city.


-- Sucheta Dalal