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:
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.