Tag Archives: PECR

Green light for spam texters – for now

The ICO has effectively conceded he has no current powers to issue monetary penalties on spam texters.

In June this year the Upper Tribunal dismissed the appeal by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) against the quashing of a £300,000 monetary penalty notice (the MPN) served on spam texter Christopher Niebel. The MPN had been issued pursuant to the ICO’s powers under section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 to serve such a notice if there has been a serious contravention of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress. The Upper Tribunal held that the First-tier Tribunal had not erred in law in finding that the ICO’s relevant interpretation of “distress” was unsustainable:

the tribunal took issue with the Commissioner’s guidance as to the meaning of “distress” and, in my opinion rightly so. According to that guidance, “Distress is any injury to feelings, harm or anxiety suffered by an individual” (at paragraph [12], emphasis added). The tribunal’s conclusion was that if this “involves the proposition that it is not possible to have ‘any injury to feelings’ which falls short of ‘distress’ then, it seems to us, that the definition is at odds with common experience and with the ordinary use of English [¶60]

As the law required evidence that Niebel’s company’s sending of spam texts had been of a kind likely to cause substantial distress, and as the ICO’s evidence did not match up to this, the MPN had been rightly quashed. Implicitly, the Upper Tribunal was suggesting that further MPNs of this kind would also not be sustainable, and, explicitly, it questioned whether, if Parliament wanted to give the ICO powers to financially punish spam texters, it would require a change in the law

[a] more profitable course of action, is for the statutory test to be revisited…a statutory test that was formulated in terms of e.g. annoyance, inconvenience and/or irritation, rather than “substantial damage or substantial distress”, might well have resulted in a different outcome.

To no real surprise, since the ICO lost this appeal, no further MPNs have been issued for spam texting (some have been served for spam telephone calls). Now the ICO, in a blog post by their Head of Enforcement Steve Eckersley has effectively conceded that the result of the Niebel litigation has been to remove their powers to serve MPNs for spam texts, saying it had “largely [rendered] our power to issue fines for breaches of PECR involving spam texts redundant”. And Eckersley picks up the call for a law change, confirming that there will be a consultation later this year (whether any of this will see results this side of the general election, however, is another question).  This call echoes one made by the Information Commissioner himself, who said in February

We have just got to lower that hurdle because I think if you ask most people they would say silent calls and unsolicited spam texts are one of the great curses of the age – and if the Information Commissioner can’t protect you it’s a poor lookout.
There are, of course, other strings to the ICO bow, and Eckersley refers to some of them
we are using our existing powers to hold companies to account and to disrupt their unlawful activities….and we are obtaining undertakings from and issuing enforcement notices, effectively cease-and-desist orders, to companies that breach PECR.
This sounds good, but leaves me rather puzzled: as the ICO has confirmed to me, no enforcement notices have been served and only one undertaking obtained, against companies or individuals who have sent spam texts in breach of PECR. Enforcement notices are a strong power – breach of one is a criminal offence – and only require the ICO to consider whether the PECR contravention has caused or is likely to cause any person damage or distress, not “substantial damage or substantial distress”. This lower threshold should make it much more difficult for enforcement to be resisted. Maybe some enforcement notices are on their way? One rather hopes so, because, for the moment, it looks like spam texters have received a green light.
EDITED TO ADD:
Tim Turner points out to me that a conviction for breach of an enforcement notice is not a recordable offence it will not make its way on to the Police National Computer, and will not therefore generally result in disclosure for, e.g. employment purposes. Tim’s view, and it is a compelling one, is that for a lot of spammers the threat of a minor conviction for breach of a legal notice is not one which is likely to dissuade them from their practice.

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Filed under Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, marketing, monetary penalty notice, nuisance calls, PECR, Upper Tribunal

Lib Dems in breach of ePrivacy laws?

As I’ve written on several occasions recently, the sending of direct marketing emails without the consent of the recipient is, as a general principle, unlawful under European and domestic law.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance makes clear that promotion of a political party, campaign or candidate is “direct marketing” for the purposes of the Privacy and Electronic Communication (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR):

We take a broad view of what constitutes marketing and are satisfied that it is not only the offer for sale of goods or services but also includes the promotion of the aims and ideals of any organisation including political campaigns.
On 20 July I noted this on the Liberal Democrats’ home page
 
libdem
A campaign to end Female Genital Mutilation is a worthy one (and not a party political issue) and one I’m happy to put my name to. However, I did have my suspicions, so set up a new email address, entered that into the box, and clicked “I agree”. There was no indication of what would happen with my email address once I had done this, although there was, at the very foot of the page, a small unobtrusive link to a “privacy policy” (of which more later).
 
What did happen was, firstly, and straight away, I received the following email
receipt1
 which was fair enough. At the foot of that email was this message
receipt
again, fair enough, and that should be the end of my engagement with the Lib Dems.
  
But, you will perhaps be unsurprised to hear, it wasn’t. Two days later I received this, from Lynn Featherstone MP
featherstone
which at least was on the subject of FGM, but I was surprised she considered herself my “friend”. And two days after that I found I’d made another friend:
nick
So, a few days after I’d expressed my support for a non-party-political campaign, I was on first name terms with a political party leader, who was sending me an unsolicited marketing email. Which takes us back to PECR, and consent, and my myriad previous blog posts.
 
I thought I’d check exactly what the Lib Dems website privacy policy says. Of course there’s the usual guff about taking privacy seriously, but it goes on to say
If you provide your email address…we may use the email address to send you further information in the future. You may at any point request not to receive such information any more.
And there it is, in clear terms – a statement of non-compliance with the law. They cannot, under regulation 22(2) of PECR, infer consent to receive marketing emails merely because someone has provided an email address. I will be complaining to the Lib Dems, and, if necessary, the Information Commissioner’s Office.

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Filed under consent, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, privacy notice

ICO responds to my concerns about PECR compliance

In assessing one’s own compliance with the law, or in advising a client on the law, or in pontificating on one’s blog about the law, one is well advised to refer not only to the law itself (whether in the form of legislation or precedent at common law), but also codes of practice, and guidance. When the law in question is the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR), which are enforced and overseen by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), it is natural that one would refer – in addition to PECR themselves, and the European Directive 2002/58/EC to which PECR give domestic effect – to the ICO’s own PECR guidance, and, particularly when it comes to electronic marketing, the guidance on Direct Marketing.

So, when the latter guidance says

Organisations must give the customer the chance to opt out – both when they first collect the details, and in every email or text. Organisations should not assume that all customers will be happy to get marketing texts or emails in future…It must be simple to opt out. When first collecting a customer’s details, this should be part of the same process (eg online forms should include a prominent opt-out box…

it would be reasonable to assume that an organisation which did not do this would be, at least if not in direct breach of PECR, sailing close to the wind. The relevant regulation (22(2)) of PECR says that

a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the sender

and recital 40 of the originating Directive says that electronic marketing requires that prior, explicit consent be given before electronic marketing can take place.

One could reasonably argue that, until such unsolicited electronic marketing takes place, there is no active breach of PECR, but it should surely be conceded that any practice of collecting email addresses, by – say – a political party, in circumstances where explicit consent to receiving subsequent electronic political marketing, is questionable.

I have blogged a number of times in recent weeks about such harvesting of email addresses, and it was prompted by a “widget” on the Labour Party website. I asked the ICO for a statement specifically about that “widget”, and this is what their spokesman said:

In general terms, if an organisation wishes to retain individuals’ contact details it should make them aware of this before their information is collected.  This appears to be the case in the NHS baby number service. We also advise organisations that web pages should explain how personal information will be used, and this can be via a link to the organisation’s privacy policy. We would also want to ensure that individuals can unsubscribe from emails if they receive them, as appears to be the situation here. 

We have published detailed guidance for political parties for campaigning or promotional purposes. On 1 May 2014, the Information Commissioner wrote to the main UK political parties reminding them of the need to follow data protection and electronic marketing rules. Political campaigning is an area that attracts close public scrutiny. We shall continue to encourage political parties to demonstrate best practice and be open and upfront with people when explaining how their personal details will be used

Now, this is a reasonable and accurate statement about the collection of personal data and compliance with the first Data Protection Principle in Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 – tell people what you are gathering their data for, and how it will be used, and you will probably have broadly complied with the duty to process personal data “fairly”.

However, it seems to overlook – with its reference to “general terms” – the specific requirements of PECR. It seems clear to me that any subsequent email from Labour will have been sent because they have inferred, rather than having received notification of, (explicit) consent.

PECR is not my strongest area. Seriously – am I missing something?

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

Big Political Data

I’ve written over the past few months about questionable compliance by the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democratic and Scottish National Parties with their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. And, as I sat down to write this post, I thought I’d check a couple of other parties’ sites, and, sure enough, similar issues are raised by the UKIP and Plaid Cymru sites

ukipplaid

No one except a few enthusiasts in this area of law/compliance seems particularly concerned, and I will, no doubt, eventually get fed up with the dead horse I am flogging. However, a fascinating article in The Telegraph by James Kirkup casts a light on just why political parties might be so keen to harvest personal data, and not be transparent about their uses of it.

Kirkup points out how parties have begun an

extraordinarily extensive – and expensive – programme of opinion polls and focus groups generating huge volumes of data about voters’ views and preferences…Traditional polls and focus groups have changed little in the past two decades. They help parties discover what voters think, what they want to hear, and how best to say it to them. That is the first stage of campaigning. The second is to identify precisely which voters you need to speak to. With finite time and resources, parties cannot afford to waste effort either preaching to the converted or trying to win over diehard opponents who will never change sides. The party that finds the waverers in the middle gains a crucial advantage.

It seems clear to me that the tricks, and opacity, which are used to get people to give up their personal information, are part of this drive to amass more and more data for political purposes. It’s unethical, it’s probably unlawful, but few seem to care, and no one, including the Information Commissioner’s Office (which has, in the past taken robust action against dodgy marketing practices in party politics) has seemed prepared so far to do anything to prevent it. However, the ICO has good guidance for the parties on this, and in May this year, issued a warning to play by the marketing rules in the run-up to local and European elections. Let’s hope this warning, and the threat of enforcement action, extends to the bigger stage of the national elections next year.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Confidentiality, consent, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, Privacy

Political attitudes to ePrivacy – this goes deep

With the rushing through of privacy-intrusive legislation under highly questionable procedures, it almost seems wrong to bang on about political parties and their approach to ePrivacy and marketing, but a) much better people have written on the #DRIP bill, and b) I think the two issues are not entirely unrelated.

Last week I was taking issue with Labour’s social media campaign which invited people to submit their email address to get a number relating to when they were born under the NHS.

Today, prompted by a twitter exchange with the excellent Lib Dem councillor James Baker, in which I observed that politicians and political parties seem to be exploiting people’s interest in discrete policy issues to harvest emails, I looked at the Liberal Democrats’ home page. It really couldn’t have illustrated my point any better. People are invited to “agree” that they’re against female genital mutilation, by submitting their email address.

libdem

There’s no information whatsoever about what will happen to your email address once you submit it. So, just as Labour were, but even more clearly here, the Lib Dems are in breach of the The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 and the Data Protection Act 1998. James says he’ll contact HQ to make them aware. But how on earth are they not already aware? The specific laws have been in place for eleven years, but the principles are much older – be fair and transparent with people’s private information. And it is not fair (in fact it’s pretty damn reprehensible) to use such a bleakly emotive subject as FGM to harvest emails (which is unavoidably the conclusion I arrive at when wondering what the purpose of the page is).

So, in the space of a few months I’ve written about the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems breaching eprivacy laws. If they’re unconcerned about or – to be overly charitable – ignorant of these laws, then is it any wonder that they railroad each other into passing “emergency” laws (which are anything but) with huge implications for our privacy?

UPDATE: 13.07.14

Alistair Sloan draws attention to the Scottish National Party’s website, which is similarly harvesting emails with no adequate notification of the purposes of future use. The practice is rife, and, as Tim Turner says in the comments below, the Information Commissioner’s Office needs to take action.

snp

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Filed under consent, Data Protection, PECR, Privacy, transparency

Privacy issues with Labour Party website

Two days ago I wrote about a page on the Labour Party website which was getting considerable social media coverage. It encourages people to submit their date of birth to find out, approximately, of all the births under the NHS, what number they were.

I was concerned that it was grabbing email address without an opt-out option. Since then, I’ve been making a nuisance of myself asking, via twitter, various Labour politicians and activists for their comments. I know I’m an unimportant blogger, and it was the weekend, but only one chose to reply: councillor for Lewisham Mike Harris, who, as campaign director for DontSpyOnUs, I would expect to be concerned, and, indeed, to his credit, he said “You make a fair point, there should be the ability to opt out”. Mike suggested I email Labour’s compliance team.

In the interim I’d noticed that elsewhere on the Labour website there were other examples of emails being grabbed in circumstances where people would not be sure about the collection. For instance: this “calculator” which purports to calculate how much less people would pay under Labour for energy bills, which gives no privacy notice whatsoever. Or even this, on the home page, which similarly gives no information about what will happen with your data

homepage

Now, some might say that, if you’re giving your details to “get involved”, then you are consenting to further contact. This is probably true, but it doesn’t mean the practice is properly compliant with data collection laws. And this is not unimportant; as well as potentially contributing to the global spam problem, poor privacy notices/lack of opt-out facilities at the point of collection of email address contribute to the unnecessary amassing of private information, and when it is done by a political party, this can even be dangerous. It should not need pointing out that, historically, and elsewhere in the world, political party lists have often been used by opposition parties and repressive governments to target and oppress activists. Indeed, the presence of one’s email on a party marketing database might well constitute sensitive personal data – as it can be construed as information on one’s political opinions (per section 2 of the Data Protection Act 1998).

So, these are not unimportant issues, and I decided to follow Mike Harris’s suggestion to email Labour’s compliance unit. However, the contact details I found on the overarching privacy policy merely gave a postal address. I did notice though that that page said

If you have any questions about our privacy policy, the information we have collected from you online, the practices of this site or your interaction with this website, please contact us by clicking here

But if I follow the “clicking here” link, it takes me to – wait for it – a contact form which gives no information whatsoever about what will happen if I submit it, other than the rather stalinesque

The Labour Party may contact you using the information you supply

And returning to the overarching privacy policy didn’t assist here – none of the categories on that page fitted the circumstances of someone contacting the party to make a general enquiry.

I see that the mainstream media have been covering the NHS birth page which originally prompted me to look at this issue. Some, like the Metro, and unsurprisingly, the Mirror, are wholly uncritical. The Independent does note that it is a clever way of harvesting emails, but fails to note the questionable legality of the practice. Given that this means that more and more email addresses will be hoovered up, without people fully understanding why, and what will happen with them, I really think that senior party figures, and the Information Commissioner, should start looking at Labour’s online privacy activities.

(By the way, if anyone thinks this is a politically-motivated post by me, I would point out that, until 2010, when I voted tactically (never again), I had only ever voted for one party in my whole life, and that wasn’t the Conservatives or the Lib Dems.)

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Filed under Data Protection, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, Privacy, privacy notice, social media, tracking

Labour Party website – unfair processing?

Earlier this year I wrote about a questionable survey on the Conservative Party website, which failed to comply with the legal requirements regarding capture of email addresses. It is perhaps unsurprising to see something similar now being done in the name of the Labour Party.

An innocuous looking form on Labour’s donation pages lies underneath a statement that almost 44 million babies have been delivered under NHS care since 1948. The form invites people to find out what number their birth was. There are of course lots of this type of thing on the internet: “What was number one when you were born?” “Find out which Banana Split you are” etc. But this one, as well as asking for people’s date of birth, asks for their (first) name, email address and postcode. And, sure enough, underneath, in small print that I suspect they hope people won’t read, it says

The Labour Party and its elected representatives may contact you about issues we think you may be interested in or with campaign updates. You may unsubscribe at any point

So, they’ll have your email address, your first name and a good idea of where you live (cue lots of “Hi Jon” emails, telling me about great initiatives in my area). All very predictable and dispiriting. And also almost certainly unlawful: regulation 22(2) of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) says that

a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the sender

This Labour web page impermissibly infers consent. The European Directive  to which PECR give domestic effect makes clear in recital 40 that electronic marketing requires that prior, explicit consent  be obtained. Furthermore the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), issues clear guidance on PECR and marketing, and this says

Organisations must give the customer the chance to opt out – both when they first collect the details, and in every email or text. Organisations should not assume that all customers will be happy to get marketing texts or emails in future…It must be simple to opt out. When first collecting a customer’s details, this should be part of the same process (eg online forms should include a prominent opt-out box…

The ICO’s guidance on political campaigning is (given the likelihood of abuse) disappointingly less clear, but it does say that “An organisation must have the individual’s consent to communicate with them [by email]”. I rather suspect the Labour Party would try to claim that the small print would suffice to meet this consent point, but a) it wouldn’t get them past the hurdle of giving the option to opt out at the point of collection of data, and b) in the circumstances it would crash them into the hurdle of “fairness”. The political campaigning guidance gives prominence to this concept

It is not just in an organisation’s interests to act lawfully, but it should also have respect for the privacy of the individuals it seeks to represent by treating them fairly. Treating individuals fairly includes using their information only in a way they would expect

I do not think the majority of people completing the Labour Party’s form, which on the face of it simply returns a number relating to when they were born, would expect their information to be used for future political campaigning. So it appears to be in breach of PECR, not fair, and also, of course (by reference to the first principle in Schedule One) in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998. Maybe the ICO will want to take a look.

UPDATE:

I see that this page is being pushed quite hard by the party. Iain McNicol, General Secretary, and described as “promoter” of the page has tweeted about it, as have shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband himself. One wonders how many email addresses have been gathered in this unfair and potentially unlawful way.

 

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

Virgin on the ridiculous

UPDATE 15.12.14: I think the comments on this piece take it further, and I do accept (as I did at the time, in fact) that the “password” in question was not likely to relate to customers’ accounts.
END UPDATE.

I got into a rather odd exchange over the weekend with the people running the Virgin Media twitter account. It began when, as is my wont, I was searching for tweets about “data protection” and noticed an exchange in which someone had asked Virgin Media whether their sales people rang customers and asked them to give their passwords. Virgin Media kindly appeared to confirm they did, and that

it’s for security as we can’t make any changes without data protection being passed

I asked for clarification, and this exchange ensued

[ME] Is it true your sales people call customers and ask for their account passwords? If so, are these unsolicited calls?

[VM] Yes this is true, our sales team would call and before entering your account, would need you to pass account security. I understand for your own security purposes why you wouldn’t feel great doing this, i’d be the same. If you give us a call on 150/03454541111 we can get this cleared up. Let me know how you get on

[ME] Thanks. Not a customer. Just interested in what seems like questionable practice being defended under guise of data protection

[VM] We contact our customers if there upgrade is due, or for a heath check on accounts, and a few other instances, but I get where your coming from [sic]

There’s nothing unlawful about this practice, and I assume that the accounts in question are service and not financial ones, but it doesn’t accord with normal industry practice. Moreover, one is warned often enough about the risks of phishing calls asking for account passwords. If a legitimate company requires or encourages its sales staff to do this, it adds to a culture of unnecessary risk. There are better ways of verifying identity, as their social media person seems to accept, when they say “I understand for your own security purposes why you wouldn’t feel great doing this, i’d be the same”.

One thing I’m certain about, though, is that isn’t any part of “passing data protection” (unless they mean bypassing) to make outbound calls and ask for customer passwords.

On a final note, and in admiration of bare-faced cheek, I highlight the end of my exchange with Virgin Media

If you want, as your not a customer, you can check out our brill offers here [removed] maybe we could save you a few pounds?

That’s an offer I most certainly can refuse.

(By the way, as it’s an official Virgin Media account, I’ve taken what I was told on Twitter at face value. If I have misunderstood any of their policies on this I’d be happy to correct).

UPDATE:

Virgin Media’s Twitter account appears to have confirmed to me a) that they do ask for customers’ passwords on outbound sales calls, and b) that they see nothing wrong with it. And rather hilariously, they say that “we can discuss further” if I will “pop a few details” on their web form for social media enquiries. No thanks.

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Filed under Data Protection, Let's Blame Data Protection, marketing, nuisance calls, PECR, social media

Ticking off Neelie Kroes (sort of)

In which I take issue with the European Commission V-P about what the Consumer Rights Directive says about pre-ticked boxes

I found myself retweeting what I think was a rather misleading message from the Vice-President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes. Her tweet said

You know those annoying “pre-ticked boxes” on shopping/travel websites? They’re banned in #EU from today http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-655_en.htm#eCommerce

I thought this was very interesting, particularly in light of my recent post about the implying of consent to electronic marketing if people forget to untick such boxes. The EU press release itself does say at one point

Under the new EU rules…consumers can now rely on…A ban on pre-ticked boxes on the internet, as for example when they buy plane tickets

But, it earlier says

The new rules also ban…pre-ticked boxes on websites for charging additional payments (for example when buying plane tickets online)

The emphasis I’ve added in that last quote is crucial. What DIRECTIVE 2011/83/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 25 October 2011 on consumer rights actually proscribes is the contractual binding of a consumer to any payment in addition to the original remuneration agreed on if

the trader has not obtained the consumer’s express consent but has inferred it by using default options which the consumer is required to reject in order to avoid the additional payment

 So, as the press release explains,

When shopping online –for example when buying a plane ticket – you may be offered additional options during the purchase process, such as travel insurance or car rental. These additional services may be offered through so-called pre-ticked boxes. Consumers are currently often forced to untick those boxes if they do not want these extra services. With the new Directive, pre-ticked boxes will be banned across the European Union.

I happen to think that that text should more properly say “With the new Directive, pre-ticked boxes of this sort will be banned across the European Union”.

So, no ban on pre-ticked boxes themselves, just on those which purport to bind a consumer to an additional payment under a contract.

The Directive has been implemented in the UK by  The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and associated The Enterprise Act 2002 (Part 8 EU Infringements) Order 2013 the former of which says (at regulation 40)

Under a contract between a trader and a consumer, no payment is payable in addition to the remuneration agreed for the trader’s main obligation unless, before the consumer became bound by the contract, the trader obtained the consumer’s express consent.. There is no express consent (if there would otherwise be) for the purposes of this paragraph if consent is inferred from the consumer not changing a default option (such as a pre-ticked box on a website)

Having said all this, I do think it is interesting that clearly-defined concepts of “express consent” are making their way into European and domestic legislation. And in due course, we may even find that, for instance, electronic marketing will be restrained unless similarly clearly-defined express consent is given. But not just yet.

Update: Ms Kroes kindly replied to me, saying it’s difficult to get a message across in 140 characters. So true.

 

 

 

 

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Piles of cash for claiming against spammers? I’m not so sure

I am not a lawyer, but I’m pretty certain that most commercial litigation strategies will be along the lines of “don’t waste lots of money fighting a low-value case which sets no precedent”. And I know it is a feature of such litigation that some companies will not even bother defending such cases, calculating that doing so will cost the company much more, with no other gain.

With this in mind, one notes the recent case of Sky News producer Roddy Mansfield. His employer itself reported (in a piece with a sub-heading  “John Lewis is prosecuted…”, which is manifestly not the case – this was a civil matter) that

John Lewis has been ordered to pay damages for sending “spam” emails in a privacy ruling that could open the floodgates for harassed consumers.

Roddy Mansfield, who is a producer for Sky News, brought the case under EU legislation that prohibits businesses from sending marketing emails without consent

The case appears to have been brought under regulation 30 of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). Those regulations, as the title suggests, give effect to the UK’s obligations under the snappily titled Directive 2002/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 July 2002 concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector. Regulation 30(1) of PECR provides that

A person who suffers damage by reason of any contravention of any of the requirements of these Regulations by any other person shall be entitled to bring proceedings for compensation from that other person for that damage

It appears that Mr Mansfield created an account on the John Lewis website, and omitted to “untick” a box which purported to convey his consent to John Lewis sending him marketing emails. It further appears that in the County Court Mr Mansfield successfully argued that the subsequent sending of such emails was in breach of regulation 22(2), which provides in relevant part that

a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent…

Assuming that this accurately reflects what happened, I think Mr Mansfield was probably correct to argue that John Lewis had breached the regulations: the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance states that

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

For a detailed exposition of the PECR provisions in play, see Tim Turner’s excellent recent blog post on this same story.

I’ve used the word “appears” quite a bit in this post, because there are various unknowns in this story. One of the main missing pieces of information is the actual amount of damages awarded to Mr Mansfield. Unless (and it is not the case here) exemplary or aggravated damages are available, an award will only act as compensation. It has been said that

The central purpose of a civil law award of damages is to compensate the claimant for the damage, loss or injury he or she has suffered as a result of another’s acts or omissions, and to put the claimant in the same position as he or she would have been but for the injury, loss or damage, so far as this is possible

So I doubt very much whether the award to Mr Mansfield was anything other than a small sum (so the albeit tongue-in-cheek Register reference to a PILE OF CASH is very probably way off the mark) . I have asked him via his twitter account for details, but have had no reply as yet.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this story, though, is the extent to which it indicates the way the courts might interpret the relevant consent provisions of PECR. As this was a case in the County Court it sets no precedent, and, unless someone decides to pay for a transcript of the hearing we’re very unlikely to get any written judgment or law report, but the principles at stake are profound ones, concerning how electronic marketing communications can be lawfully sent, and about what “consent” means in this context.

The issue will not go away, and, although I suspect (referring back to my opening paragraph) that John Lewis chose not to appeal because the costs of doing so would have vastly outweighed the costs of settling the matter by paying the required damages, it would greatly benefit from some proper consideration by a higher court.

And another important aspect of the story is whether behaviours might change as a result. Maybe they have: I see that John Lewis, no doubt aware that others might take up the baton passed on by Mr Mansfield, have quietly amended their “create an account” page, so that the opt-in box is no longer pre-ticked.

jl

UPDATE: 7 June

In a comment below a pseudonymed person suggests that the damages award was indeed tiny – £10 plus £25 costs. It also suggests that John Lewis tried to argue that they were permitted to send the emails by virtue of the “soft opt-in” provisions of regulation 22(3) PECR, perhaps spuriously arguing that Mr Mansfield and they were in negotiations for a sale.

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