Rich Greenhill has spotted another odd feature of this consultation. Options one and two both use the formulation “the contravention was deliberate or the person knew or ought to have known that there was a risk that the contravention would occur”, however, option three omits the words “…or ought to have known”. This is surely a typo, because if it were a deliberate omission it would effectively mean that penalties could not be imposed for negligent contraventions (only deliberate or wilful contraventions would qualify). I understand Rich has asked DCMS to clarify this, and will update as and when he hears anything.
An interesting development of this story was how many media outlets and commentators reported that the consultation was about lowering the threshold to “likely to cause annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”, ignoring in the process that the preferred option of DCMS and ICO was for no harm threshold at all. Christopher Knight, on 11KBW’s Panopticon blog kindly amended his piece when I drew this point to his attention. He did, however observe that most of the consultation paper, and DCMS’s website, appeared predicated on the assumption that the lower-harm threshold was at issue. Today, Rich Greenhill informs us all that he has spoken to DCMS, and that their preference is indeed for a “no harm” approach: “Just spoke to DCMS: govt prefers PECR Option 3 (zero harm), its PR is *wrong*”. How very odd.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced a consultation on lowering the threshold for the imposing of financial sanctions on those who unlawfully send electronic direct marketing. They’ve called it a “Nuisance calls consultation”, which, although they explain that it applies equally to nuisance text messages, emails etc., doesn’t adequately describe what could be an important development in electronic privacy regulation.
When, a year ago, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) upheld the appeal by spam texter Christopher Niebel against the £300,000 monetary penalty notice (MPN) served on him by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), it put the latter in an awkward position. And when the Upper Tribunal dismissed the ICO’s subsequent appeal, there was binding authority on the limits to the ICO’s power to serve MPNs for serious breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). There was no dispute that, per the mechanism at section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), adopted by PECR by virtue of regulation 31, Niebel’s contraventions were serious and deliberate, but what was at issue was whether they were “of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress”. The FTT held that they were not – no substantial damage would be likely to arise and when it came to distress
the effect of the contravention is likely to be widespread irritation but not widespread distress…we cannot construct a logical likelihood of substantial distress as a result of the contravention.
When the Upper Tribunal agreed with the FTT, and the ICO’s Head of Enforcement said it had “largely [rendered] our power to issue fines for breaches of PECR involving spam texts redundant” it seemed clear that, for the time being at least, there was in effect a green light for spam texters, and, by extension, other spam electronic marketers. The DCMS consultation is in response to calls from the ICO, and others, such as the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nuisance Calls, the Direct Marketing Association and Which for a change in the law.
The consultation proposes three options – 1) do nothing, 2) lower the threshold from “likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress” to “likely to cause annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”, or 3) remove the threshold altogether, so any serious and deliberate (or reckless) contravention of the PECR provisions would attract the possibility of a monetary penalty. The third option is the one favoured by DCMS and the ICO.
If either of the second or third options is ultimately enacted, this could, I feel, lead to a significant reduction in the prevalence of spam marketing. The consultation document notes that (despite the fact that the MPN was overturned on appeal) the number of unsolicited spam SMS text message sent reduced by a significant number after the Niebel MPN was served. A robust and prominent campaign of enforcement under a legislative scheme which makes it much easier to impose penalties to a maximum of £500,000, and much more difficult to appeal them, could put many spammers out of business, and discourage others. This will be subject, of course, both to the willingness and the resources of the ICO. The consultation document notes that there might be “an expectation that [MPNs] would be issued by the ICO in many more cases than its resources permit” but the ICO has said (according to the document) that it is “ready and equipped to investigate and progress a significant number of additional cases with a view to taking greater enforcement action including issuing more CMPs”.
There appears to be little resistance (as yet, at least) to the idea of lowering or removing the penalty threshold. Given that, and given the ICO’s apparent willingness to take on the spammers, we may well see a real and significant attack on the scourge. Of course, this only applies to identifiable spammers in the domestic jurisdiction – let’s hope it doesn’t just drive an increase in non-traceable, overseas spam.