The Lib Dems’ digital rights bill – an empty promise?

On the 11th of April the Liberal Democrats announced that they would introduce a “Digital Rights Bill” if they were to form part of a coalition government in the next parliament. Among the measures the bill would contain would be, they said

Beefed up powers for the Information Commissioner to fine and enforce disciplinary action on government bodies if they breach data protection lawsLegal rights to compensation for consumers when companies make people sign up online to deliberately misleading and illegible terms & conditions

I found this interesting because the Lib Dems have recently shown themselves particularly unconcerned with digital rights contained in ePrivacy laws. Specifically, they have shown a lack of compliance with the requirement at regulation 22 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). This regulation forbids the sending of direct marketing by email unless the recipient has notified the sender that she consents to the email being sent. The European directive to which PECR give effect specifies that “consent” should be taken to have been given only by use of

any appropriate method enabling a freely given specific and informed indication of the user’s wishes, including by ticking a box when visiting an Internet website

And the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which regulates PECR, explains in guidance [pdf] that

the person must understand what they are consenting to. Organisations must make sure they clearly and prominently explain exactly what the person is agreeing to, if this is not obvious. Including information in a dense privacy policy or hidden in ‘small print’ which is hard to find, difficult to understand, or rarely read will not be enough to establish informed consent…consent must be a positive expression of choice. It does not necessarily have to be a proactive declaration of consent – for example, consent might sometimes be given by submitting an online form, if there was a clear and prominent statement that this would be taken as agreement and there was the option to opt out. But organisations cannot assume consent from a failure to opt out

But in July last year I began conducting an experiment. I put my name (actually, typed my email address) to a statement on the Lib Dem website saying

Girls should never be cut. We must end FGM

I gave no consent to the sending of direct email marketing from the Lib Dems, and, indeed, the Lib Dems didn’t even say they would send direct email marketing as a result of my submitting the email address (and, to be clear, the ICO takes the, correct, view [pdf] that promotion of a political party meets the PECR, and Data Protection Act, definition of “marketing”). Yet since October last year they have sent me 23 unsolicited emails constituting direct marketing. I complained directly to the Lib Dems, who told me

we have followed the policies we have set out ion [sic] our privacy policy which follow the guidance we have been given by the ICO

which hardly explains how they feel they have complied with their legal obligations, and I will be raising this as a complaint with the ICO. I could take the route of making a claim under regulation 30 of PECR, but this requires that I must have suffered “damage”. By way of comparison, around the same time I also submitted my email address, in circumstances in which I was not consenting to future receipt of email marketing, to other major parties. To their credit, none of the Conservatives, the SNP and the Greens have sent any unsolicited marketing. However, Labour have sent 8 emails, Plaid Cymru 10 and UKIP, the worst offenders, 37 (there is little that is more nauseating, by the way, than receiving an unsolicited email from Nigel Farage addressing one as “Friend”). I rather suspect that consciously or not, some political parties have decided that the risk of legal or enforcement action (and possibly the apparent ambiguity – although really there is none – about the meaning of “consent”) is so low that it is worth adopting a marketing strategy like this. Maybe that’s a sensible act of political pragmatism. But it stinks, and the Lib Dems’ cavalier approach to ePrivacy compliance makes me completely doubt the validity and sincerity of Nick Clegg’s commitment to

enshrine into law our rights as citizens of this country to privacy, to stop information about us being abused online

And, as Pat Walshe noticed the other day, even the Lib Dems’ own website advert inviting support for their proposed Digital Rights Bill has a pre-ticked box (in non-compliance with ICO guidance) for email updates. One final point, I note that clicking on the link in the first paragraph of this post, to the Lib Dems’ announcement of the proposed Bill, opens up, or attempts to open up, a pdf file of a consultation paper. This might just be a coding error, but it’s an odd, and dodgy, piece of script.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

2 Comments

Filed under consent, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, spam

2 responses to “The Lib Dems’ digital rights bill – an empty promise?

  1. Pingback: ICO finds Lib Dems in breach of ePrivacy law | informationrightsandwrongs

  2. Pingback: What does it take to stop Lib Dems spamming? | informationrightsandwrongs

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