Category Archives: spam

Why what Which did wears my patience thin

Pre-ticked consent boxes and unsolicited emails from the Consumers’ Association

Which?, the brand name of the Consumers’ Association, publishes a monthly magazine. In an era of social media, and online reviews, its mix of consumer news and product ratings might seem rather old-fashioned, but it is still (according to its own figures1) Britain’s best-selling monthly magazine. Its rigidly paywalled website means that one must generally subscribe to get at the magazine’s contents. That’s fair enough (although after my grandmother died several years ago, we found piles of unread, unopened even, copies of Which? She had apparently signed up to a regular Direct Debit payment, probably to receive a “free gift”, and had never cancelled it: so one might draw one’s own conclusion about how many of Which?’s readers are regular subscribers for similar reasons).

In line with its general “locked-down” approach, Which?’s recent report into the sale of personal data was, except for snippets, not easy to access, but it got a fair bit of media coverage. Intrigued, I bit: I subscribed to the magazine. This post is not about the report, however, although the contents of the report drive the irony of what happened next.

As I went through the online sign-up process, I arrived at that familiar type of page where the subject of future marketing is broached. Which? had headlined their report “How your data could end up in the hands of scammers” so it struck me as amusing, but also irritating, that the marketing options section of the sign-in process came with a pre-ticked box:

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As guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office makes clear, pre-ticked boxes are not a good way to get consent from someone to future marketing:

Some organisations provide pre-ticked opt-in boxes, and rely on the user to untick it if they don’t want to consent. In effect, this is more like an opt-out box, as it assumes consent unless the user clicks the box. A pre-ticked box will not automatically be enough to demonstrate consent, as it will be harder to show that the presence of the tick represents a positive, informed choice by the user.

The Article 29 Working Party goes further, saying in its opinion on unsolicited communications for marketing purposes that inferring consent to marketing from the use of pre-ticked boxes is not compatible with the data protection directive. By extension, therefore, any marketing subsequently sent on the basis of a pre-ticked box will be a contravention of the data protection directive (and, in the UK, the Data Protection Act 1998) and the ePrivacy directive (in the UK, the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR)).

Nothwithstanding this, I certainly did not want to consent to receive subsequent marketing, so, as well as making a smart-arse tweet, I unticked the box. However, to my consternation, if not my huge surprise, I have subsequently received several marketing emails from Which? They do not have my consent to send these, so they are manifestly in contravention of regulation 22 of PECR.

It’s not clear how this has happened. Could it be a deliberate tactic by Which?  to ignore subscribers’ wishes? One presumes not: Which? says it “exists to make individuals as powerful as the organisations they deal with in their daily live” – deliberately ignoring clear expressions regarding consent would hardly sit well with that mission statement. So is it a general website glitch – which means that those expressions are lost in the sign-up process? If so, how many individuals are affected? Or is it just a one-off glitch, affecting only me?

Let’s hope it’s the last. Because the ignoring or overriding of expressions of consent, and the use of pre-ticked boxes for gathering consent, are some of the key things which fuel trade in and disrespect for personal data. The fact that I’ve experience this issue with a charity which exists to represent consumers, as a result of my wish to read their report into misuse of personal data, is shoddy, to say the least.

I approached Which? for a comment, and a spokesman said:

We have noted all of your comments relating to new Which? members signing up, including correspondence received after sign-up, and we are considering these in relation to our process.

I appreciate the response, although I’m not sure it really addresses my concerns.

1Which? Annual Report 2015/2016

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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Filed under consent, Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, spam, subject access

What does it take to stop Lib Dems spamming?

Lib Dems continue to breach ePrivacy law, ICO still won’t take enforcement action.

It’s not difficult: the sending of unsolicited marketing emails to me is unlawful. Regulation 22 of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) and by extension, the first and second principles in Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) make it so. The Liberal Democrats have engaged in this unlawful practice – they know and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) know it, because the latter recently told the former that they have, and told me in turn

I have reviewed your correspondence and the [Lib Dem’s] website, and it appears that their current practices would fail to comply with the requirements of the PECR. This is because consent is not knowingly given, clear and specific….As such, we have written to the organisation to remind them of their obligations under the PECR and ensure that valid consent is obtained from individuals

But the ICO has chosen not to take enforcement action, saying to me in an email of 24th April

enforcement action is not taken routinely and it is our decision whether to take it. We cannot take enforcement action in every case that is reported to us

Of course I’d never suggested they take action in every case – I’d requested (as is my right under regulation 32 of PECR) that they take action in this particular case. The ICO also asked for the email addresses I’d used; I gave these over assuming it was for the purposes of pursuing an investigation but no, when I later asked the ICO they said they’d passed them to the Lib Dems in order that they could be suppressed from the Lib Dem mailing list. I could have done that if I wanted to. It wasn’t the point and I actually think the ICO were out of order (and contravening the DPA themselves) in failing to tell me that was the purpose.

But I digress. Failure to comply with PECR and the DPA is rife across the political spectrum and I think it’s strongly arguable that lack of enforcement action by the ICO facilitates this. And to illustrate this, I visited the Lib Dems’ website recently, and saw the following message

Untitled

Vacuous and vague, I suppose, but I don’t disagree, so I entered an email address registered to me (another one I reserve for situations where I fear future spamming) and clicked “I agree”. By return I got an email saying

Friend – Thank you for joining the Liberal Democrats…

Wait – hold on a cotton-picking minute – I haven’t joined the bloody Liberal Democrats – I put an email in a box! Is this how they got their recent, and rather-hard-to-explain-in-the-circumstances “surge” in membership? Am I (admittedly using a pseudonym) now registered with them as a member? If so, that raises serious concerns about DPA compliance – wrongly attributing membership of a political party to someone is processing of sensitive personal data without a legal basis.

It’s possible that I haven’t yet been registered as such, because the email went on to say

Click here to activate your account

When I saw this I actually thought the Lib Dems might have listened to the ICO – I assumed that if I didn’t (I didn’t) “click here” I would hear no more. Not entirely PECR compliant, but a step in the right direction. But no, I’ve since received an email from the lonely Alistair Carmichael asking me to support the Human Rights Act (which I do) but to support it by joining a Lib Dem campaign. This is direct marketing of a political party, I didn’t consent to it, and it’s sending was unlawful.

I’ll report it to the ICO, more in hope than expectation that they will do anything. But if they don’t, I think they have to accept that a continuing failure to take enforcement against casual abuse of privacy laws is going to lead to a proliferation of that abuse.

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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Shameless

Only very recently I wrote about how the Liberal Democrats had been found by the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) to have been in breach of their obligations under anti-spam laws (or, correctly, the ICO had determined it was “unlikely” the Lib Dems had complied with the law). This was because they had sent me unsolicited emails promoting their party without my consent, in contravention of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). The ICO told me that “we have written to the organisation to remind them of their obligations under the PECR and ensure that valid consent is obtained from individuals”.

Well, the reminder hasn’t worked: today I went on the Lib Dem site and noticed the invitation to agree that “The NHS needs an extra £8bn”. Who could disagree? There was a box to enter my email address and “back our campaign”. Which campaign did they mean? Who knows? I assumed the campaign to promote NHS funding, but there was no privacy notice at all (at least on the mobile site). I entered an email address, because I certainly agree with a campaign that the NHS needs an extra £8bn pounds, but what I certainly didn’t do was consent to receive email marketing.

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But of course I did…within eight hours I received an email from someone called Olly Grender asking me to donate to the Lib Dems. Why on earth would I want to do that? And a few hours later I got an email from Nick Clegg himself, reiterating Olly’s message. Both emails were manifestly, shamelessly, sent in contravention of PECR, only a couple of weeks after the ICO assured me they were going to “remind” the Lib Dems of the law.

Surely the lesson is the same one the cynics have told us over the years – don’t believe what politicians tell you.

And of course, only this week there was a further example, with the notorious Telegraph “business leaders” letter. The open letter published by the paper, purporting to come from 5000 small business owners, had in fact been written by Conservative Campaign Headquarters, and signatories  were merely people who had filled in a form on the Conservative party website agreeing to sign the letter but who were informed in a privacy notice that “We will not share your details with anyone outside the Conservative Party”. But share they did, and so it was that multiple duplicate signatories, and signatories who were by no means small business owners, found their way into the public domain. Whether any of them will complain to the ICO will probably determine the extent to which this might have been a contravention, not of PECR (this wasn’t unsolicited marketing), but of the Data Protection Act 1998, and the Conservatives’ obligation to process personal data fairly and lawfully. But whatever the outcome, it’s another example of the abuse of web forms, and the harvesting of email addresses, for the promotion of party political aims.

I will be referring the Lib Dems matter back to the ICO, and inviting them again (they declined last time) to take enforcement action for repeat and apparently deliberate, or reckless, contraventions of their legal obligations under PECR.

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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ICO finds Lib Dems in breach of ePrivacy law

A few months ago, when I entered my email address on the Liberal Democrats’ website to say that I agreed with the statement 

Girls should never be cut. We must end FGM

I hoped I wouldn’t subsequently receive spam emails promoting the party. However I had no way of knowing because there was no obvious statement explaining what would happen. But, furthermore, I had clearly not given specific consent to receive such emails.

Nonetheless, I did get them, and continue to do so – emails purportedly from Nick Clegg, from Paddy Ashdown and from others, promoting their party and sometimes soliciting donations.

I happen to think the compiling of a marketing database by use of serious and emotive subjects such as female genital mutilation is extraordinarily tasteless. It’s also manifestly unlawful in terms of Lib Dems’ obligations under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR), which require specific consent to have been given before marketing emails can be sent to individuals.

On the lawfulness point I am pleased to say the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) agrees with me. Having considered my complaint they have said:

I have reviewed your correspondence and the organisations website, and it appears that their current practices would fail to comply with the requirements of the PECR. This is because consent is not knowingly given, clear and specific….As such, we have written to the organisation to remind them of their obligations under the PECR and ensure that valid consent is obtained from individuals.

Great. I’m glad they agree – casual disregard of PECR seems to be rife throughout politics. As I’ve written recently, the Labour Party, UKIP and Plaid Cymru have also spammed my dedicated email account. But I also asked the ICO to consider taking enforcement action (as is my right under regulation 32 of PECR). Disappointingly, they have declined to do so, saying:

enforcement action is not taken routinely and it is our decision whether to take it. We cannot take enforcement action in every case that is reported to us

It’s also disappointing that they don’t say why this is their decision. I know they cannot take enforcement action in every case reported to them, which is why I requested it in this specific case.

However, I will be interested to see whether the outcome of this case changes the Lib Dems’ approach. Maybe it will, but, as I say, they are by no means the only offenders, and enforcement action by the ICO might just have helped to address this wider problem.

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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Filed under consent, enforcement, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, spam, Uncategorized

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.

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