SMS Mobile Marketing Has Its Legal Risks

For over a year now I have been immersing myself in mobile marketing. And for over a year I have been inundated with advertisers and publishers questions regarding the legal issues surrounding mobile sms campaigns.  The sending of text messages to mobile devices can carry some large risks, but when done correctly can also reap new revenues for those advertisers and publishers who take the time to get it right.

In my quest to find the answer I asked a good friend of mine, Richard Newman, an attorney who specializes in Internet Law and is a seasoned litigator in the performance marketing space, to give me his thoughts and opinions on what advertisers and publishers need to know about the current state of regulation as well as record keeping practices. He has very elegantly provided me with the article below that should serve as a good initial guide for anyone who wants to run SMS text promotions as a way of promoting their campaigns.

The Exponential Growth of Mobile Marketing and Associated Legal and Regulatory Risks

The use of consumer’s mobile devices to deliver targeted advertisements is increasing at an exponential rate. Given the current legal and regulatory landscape, companies must proceed with extreme caution in order to side-step potential state and federal landmines, including class action litigation. Text messaging, mobile applications, e-mail messages, and social media platforms are all racing to secure the attention of consumers.

There are, however, specific state, federal and regulatory standards that apply to mobile marketing. For example, the federal CAN-SPAM Act and/or the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) may indeed serve to restrict the ability of companies to forward marketing materials to a consumer’s mobile device. The overriding consideration in this space, is informed consent. Best practices, not to mention the avoidance of consumer complaints, dictate that companies in this space obtain consumer consent prior to sending marketing messages to consumers’ mobile devices, particularly if those consumers are on the federal Do-Not-Call registry.

Other considerations involve state Do-Not-Call and commercial e-mail statutes, as well as state and federal consumer and child protection laws, such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. In some circumstances, state lottery laws could apply to mobile marketing campaigns. For example, a recent lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission illustrates some of the risks inherent in mobile marketing. FTC v. Flora, No. 11299 (C.D. Cal. complaint filed 2/22/11). In that case, the FTC alleges that a mobile marketer violated both CAN-SPAM and Section 5 of the FTC Act by sending allegedly deceptive text messages and then selling the cellular phone numbers of consumers who responded to the advertisements. This lawsuit serves a reminder that companies should, at a bare minimum, require advertising affiliates to comply with applicable notice and consent standards.

Clearly, both CAN-SPAM and the TCPA can potentially apply to marketing-related text messages because text messages can be transmitted either to a wireless domain name, or to a mobile telephone number.  The TCPA prohibits using “any automatic dialing system to make any call to any telephone number assigned to a cellular telephone service. It also restricts calls to parties listed on the federal Do-Not-Call registry. CAN-SPAM contains requirements that businesses must follow when transmitting unsolicited commercial e-mail. Thus, if an SMS message goes to the wireless domain, CAN-SPAM applies (no private right of action), otherwise, the TCPA applies (provides for a private right of action). As a result, a mobile marketer that sends unsolicited text messages could potentially face investigations from regulators at both the FTC and the FCC.

Various state rules must also be kept in mind. Numerous states have laws that restrict the transmission of certain types of electronic commercial messages, particularly to children, and others are considering them. For example, both Michigan and Utah have child protection laws on the books that require marketers to scrub their marketing lists against state registries.  The laws prohibit the sending of ads for items like tobacco, firearms, alcohol, knives, gambling, and pornography to children, and carry stiff civil and criminal penalties. Legislation was also recently introduced in Iowa that would create a similar registry. In California, legislators are currently considering a pair of bills that could have an impact on mobile marketing.  The proposed legislation would potentially require sellers of mobile devices with geotagging capabilities to disclose those capabilities to a consumer. The proposal would prohibit the sale of those devices without prior written consent to that capability. Additionally, the proposal would expand California’s existing prohibition of unauthorized electronic surveillance to include tracking via any electronic tracking device, not merely those attached to vehicles or other moveable things.

Given the foregoing, companies in the mobile marketing space are well advised to maintain accurate records pertaining to a consumer’s express opt-in and opt-out records prior to sending marketing messages to mobile devices. Relevant records, including disclosures and terms of use should be retained from the time that a consumer opts-in and for at least one-year after a consumer has opted-out. In addition, mobile marketing companies should ensure that advertising service providers agree to comply with applicable state & federal laws and regulations, utilize contractual indemnity provisions, and scrub against federal and state databases.

If you have further questions, please feel free to email Richard Newman at


Jim Lillig, is an accomplished online marketing professional and entrepreneur. His eclectic assemblage of companies and projects gives a new insight into eCommerce tactics and strategy. A pioneering online marketer, Jim has pushed the envelope and found the edges of online marketing to be fertile ground for those who are willing to be bold and set a trail of success. He has authored many performance marketing articles as well as being a featured speaker and panelist at some of the industry’s largest events. Uniquely qualified with over 20 years of online marketing experience and 35 years of brand marketing know-how, Jim delivers innovative fresh approaches for both B2B and B2C clients.

View all posts by jimlillig →