Category Archives: spam texts

What’s happening with changes to anti-spam laws?

In October last year the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) announced a consultation to lower, or even remove, the threshold for the serving financial penalties on those who unlawfully send electronic direct marketing. I wrote at the time that

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

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and DCMS both seemed at the time to be keen to effect the necessary legislative changes to amend the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) so that, per the mechanism at section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), adopted by PECR by virtue of regulation 31, either a serious contravention alone of PECR, or a serious contravention likely to cause annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety, could give rise to a monetary penalty without the need to show – as now – likely substantial damage or substantial distress.

However, today, the Information Commissioner himself, Christopher Graham, gave vent to frustrations about delay in bringing about these changes:

Time and time again the Government talks about changing the law and clamping down on this problem, but so far it’s just that – talk. Today they are holding yet another roundtable to discuss the issue, and we seem to be going round in circles. The Government need to lay the order, change the law and bring in a reform that would make a real difference

So what has happened? Have representatives of direct marketing companies lobbied against the proposals? It would be interesting to know who was at today’s “roundtable” and what was said. But there was certainly an interesting tweet from journalist Roddy Mansfield. One hopes a report will emerge, and some record of the meeting.

One wonders why – if they are – marketing industry bodies might object to the proposed changes. The financial penalty provisions would only come into play if marketers failed to comply with the law. Spammers would get punished – the responsible companies would not.

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.

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PARKLIFE! (and a £70k monetary penalty)

In August this year I reported that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had effectively conceded it had no current powers to issue monetary penalties on spam texters. This was after the Upper Tribunal had indicated that in most cases the sending of such texts was not likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress (this being part of the statutory test for serving a monetary penalty notice (MPN) for a serious contravention of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003) (PECR).

What I’d forgotten were the reports of highly distasteful and in some cases highly distressing texts sent in May to festival-goers by the organisers of the Parklife festival in Manchester’s Heaton Park. The texts didn’t disclose that they were from the event organisers, but instead purported to come from “Mum” and were advertising extra events at the festival.

Regulation 23 of PECR outlaws the sending of direct marketing texts (and other direct marketing electronic communications) where the sender’s identity has been disguised or concealed.

As the Manchester Evening News reported at the time receiving the texts in question left many recipients who had lost their mothers distressed and upset.

And so it came to pass that, as the same newspaper reveals today, the ICO investigated complaints about the marketing, and appears to have determined that the sending of the texts was a serious contravention of PECR regulation 23, and it was of a kind likely to cause substantial distress. The paper reveals that an MPN of £70000 has been served on the organisers, and the ICO has confirmed this on its website, and the MPN itself lists a number of the complaints made by affected recipients.

So, I, and the ICO’s Steve Eckersley, were wrong – powers to serve MPNs for spam texts do still currently exist, although it must be said that this was an exceptional case: most spam texts are irritating, rather than as callous and potentially distressing as these. And this is why the Ministry of Justice is, as I have previously discussed, consulting on lowering, or dropping altogether, the “harm threshold” for serving MPNs for serious PECR contraventions.

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.

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No harm done

Why does nobody listen to me?

Quite a few media outlets and commentators have picked up on the consultation by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport I blogged about recently. The consultation is about the possibility of legislative change to make it easier for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)(ICO) to “fine” (in reality, serve a civil monetary penalty notice) on people or organisations who commit serious contraventions of ePrivacy law in sending unsolicited electronic marketing messages (aka spam calls, texts, emails etc).

However, almost every report I have seen has missed a crucial point. So, we have The Register saying “ICO to fine UNBIDDEN MARKETEERS who cause ‘ANXIETY’…Inconvenience, annoyance also pass the watchdog’s stress test”, and Pinsent Masons, Out-Law.com saying “Unsolicited marketing causing ‘annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety’ could result in ICO fine”. We even have 11KBW’s formidable Christopher Knight saying

the DCMS has just launched a consultation exercise on amending PECR with a view to altering the test from “substantial damage or distress” to causing “annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”

But none of these spot that the preferred option of DCMS, and the ICO is actually to go further, and give the ICO the power to serve a monetary penalty notice even when no harm has been shown at all

Remove the existing legal threshold of “substantial damage and distress” (this is the preferred option of both ICO and DCMS. There would be no need to prove “substantial damage and distress”, or any other threshold such as ‘annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety’…

So yes, this is a blog post purely to moan about the fact that people haven’t read my previous post. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

UPDATE:

Chris Knight is so formidable that he’s both updated the Panopticon post and pointed out the oddness of option 3 being preferred when nearly all of the consultation paper is predicated on option 2 being victorious.

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DCMS consulting on lower threshold for “fining” spammers

UPDATE: 08.11.14

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.

END UPDATE

UPDATE: 04.11.14

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.

END UPDATE

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.

 

 

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