Unambiguously yours


There’s an old joke about a tourist in Ireland asking for directions and getting the reply ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here’. To anyone in the position of wondering whether to contact all of the people on their mailing list to get GDPR-standard consent to send marketing, fund-raising or promotional emails and texts, I can only say this: I wouldn’t start from here.

With apologies to regular readers who already know (there must be six of you by now), the problem comes because most of the people advising on the solution don’t seem to know what the problem is. They think that the General Data Protection Regulation makes a significant change to the nature of consent from what is required now, and so they tell their clients and employers that there is an urgent need to carry out a ‘re-consenting’ exercise. A memo has clearly gone out – a distinguished correspondent has sent me two examples of organisations sending out emails to get consent in the past week, and yesterday, the charity Stonewall used Valentine’s Day as a prompt to beg its supporters to ‘not leave us this way’. It was lovely, and it is probably an admission that Stonewall have been acting unlawfully since at least 2003, if not 1998.

Here’s the problem. The 1995 Data Protection Directive defines consent like this:

any freely given specific and informed indication of his wishes by which the data subject signifies his agreement to personal data relating to him being processed


the data subject has unambiguously given his consent

If you’re new to this, read those sentences a few times. Think about ‘freely given’. Think about the consent being an ‘indication’, something by which the person ‘signifies’ their ‘agreement’. Think about ‘unambiguously given‘. If you think that this be interpreted as an opt-out, where are your car keys? Consent, according to you, is me taking your car keys and leaving you a legalistic note somewhere that says that unless you tell me not to borrow your car, I can borrow your car. Or because I borrowed it another time and you didn’t object, I can keep borrowing your car until you tell me not to.

This is nonsense. Consent cannot be inferred. It cannot be implied. A badly written opt-out buried in terms and conditions, consent assumed because I made a donation, the fact that you have my email address and you assume that I must have given it to you with my consent for marketing rather than (for example) you bought it from a list broker who launders dodgy data like drug money – none of these examples constitute consent. Consent is consent. You asked and I said yes. We all know what it means and to pretend otherwise is to lie so you can persuade yourself that you can spam people.

Yes, the GDPR adds a couple of things. It requires consent to be ‘demonstrable’. It states explicitly that consent can only be obtained by a ‘statement or by a clear affirmative action’. But if you claim that the absence of the above phrase in the Directive is any help to the opt-out model, you’re lying to yourself. An opt-out is inherently ambiguous, and the directive says that consent cannot be unambiguous. I might have misunderstood the wording (especially if the language was clunky or technical, which it often is), the data may have been obtained for a different purpose and the consent option is buried in terms and conditions, I might just have missed it or forgotten. The Directive is clear.

Jump ahead to the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, based on Directive 2002/58/EC (often known the ePrivacy Directive). The definition of consent comes from the Data Protection Directive, and so if the ePrivacy Directive says you need consent, what you need is unambiguous, freely given, specific and informed consent. The ePrivacy Directive is enacted by the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, or PECR (which all good people pronounce as ‘Pecker’ and revel in the opportunities that doing so affords them).

PECR makes life even harder for the opt-outers. For emails, PECR says that the recipient must have “previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the sender“. If you think that a person can ‘notify’ you by not doing something (i.e. not opting-out), once again, where are your car keys?

Surprisingly given all the execrable practice to which the Commissioner happily turns a blind eye, Wilmslow fired a shot across everyone’s bows with three enforcement cases last year. Morrisons and Flybe are to some extent red herrings as they deliberately targeted people who had explicitly opted out of receiving direct marketing, so when the companies emailed them asking them to opt back in, it was plainly bullshit. The Honda case is more interesting, in the sense that Honda ignored everyone who had opted in (because they’d opted in) and everyone who had opted out (naturally). They contacted people where they didn’t know either way, where they held no evidence of consent. Despite the fact that in all three cases, the contact itself wasn’t selling anything, all were sent for marketing purposes, and here, the ICO argued that the organisations didn’t have consent for sending emails for marketing purposes. It’s been argued by idiots that all Honda were trying to do was comply with GDPR, but that’s patently false. They were trying to pack out their marketing list before a perceived change in the law (GDPR) while ignoring another law that was just fine thanks (PECR).

And now we come to the payoff. If Stonewall (and all the others) have consent to send fund-raising emails, they don’t need to ask again. If they don’t have freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous consent, they shouldn’t be sending emails for marketing purposes now, even if the purpose is to ask for consent from people who are happy to give it because the email is inherently unlawful. It wouldn’t be unlawful for Stonewall to write to all of its supporters and ask them for consent, because post isn’t electronic so PECR doesn’t apply. I would say that there is plainly a legitimate interest for them to use post to ask people for permission to send fund-raising and promotional correspondence by email, so there is no GDPR problem.

The problem with a re-consenting exercise is that the organisation is basically admitting to a PECR breach. The problem is exacerbated by doing that re-consenting exercise by email, because as Honda have demonstrated, doing so is in itself a breach of PECR. People complained to the ICO about the Honda emails, which is why they enforced. If you do a re-consenting exercise by email, anyone irritated enough by the request may well complain. Then what?

So what do I think organisations should do in the light of all this? Well, I wouldn’t start from here. But ignoring the law for a moment, this might be a time to be pragmatic. If you send people content that they want and you don’t annoy them (email being less annoying and distracting than phone or text in my opinion), if you have nice big bright unsubscribe buttons, and if YOU RESPECT BLOODY UNSUBSCRIBE REQUESTS (Hello Daily Telegraph), what’s the risk? Why draw attention to yourself?

I am convinced that sending emails to people who haven’t opted-in is unlawful unless you’ve got the soft opt-in (which because it’s predicated on data gathered through a sale, most charities won’t have). But many organisations have been content to do that for years despite it being unlawful now. So what’s actually changing? I think everyone should comply with the law because privacy – the right to be left alone – is a vital foundation for a civilised society. But if you’re sitting on a mailing list and you’re not sure what to do with it, I would forgive you if you took a slower, longer path, taking every natural opportunity to get renewed consent from existing contacts, getting strong unambiguous consent from anyone new, and hoping that churn and natural wastage gets you where you need to be. And if you’re wrestling with this right now and you’ve read this far, good luck and best wishes.


Head in the Sandbox


The Information Commissioner’s Office recently held a workshop about their proposed Regulatory Sandbox. The idea of the sandbox is that organisations can come to the ICO with new proposals in order to test out their lawfulness in a safe environment. The hoped-for outcome is that products and services that are at the same time innovative and compliant will emerge.

There is no mention of a sandbox process in the GDPR or the DPA 2018. There is a formal mechanism for controllers to consult the ICO about new ideas that carry high risk (prior consultation) but the circumstances where that happens are prescribed. It’s more about managing risk than getting headlines. Unlike Data Protection Impact Assessments, prior consultation or certification, the design and operation of the sandbox is entirely within the ICO’s control. It is important to know who is having an influence its development, especially as the sandbox approach is not without risk.

Although Mrs Denham is not above eye-catching enforcement when it suits her, the ICO is often risk averse, and has shown little appetite for challenging business models. For example, the UK’s vibrant data broking market – which is fundamentally opaque and therefore unlawful – has rarely been challenged by Wilmslow, especially not the bigger players. They often get treated as stakeholders. The sandbox could make this worse – big organisations will come with their money-making wheezes, and it’s hard to imagine that ICO staff will want to tell them that they can’t do what they want. The sandbox could leave the ICO implicated, having approved or not prevented dodgy practices to avoid the awkwardness of saying no.

Even if you disagree with me about these risks, it’s surely a good thing that the ICO is transparent about who is having an influence on the process. So I made an FOI request to the ICO, requesting the names and companies or organisations of those who attended the meeting. As is tradition, they replied on the 20th working day to refuse to tell me. According to Wilmslow, disclosure of the attendees’ identities is exempt for four different reasons. Transparency will prejudice the ICO’s ability to carry out its regulatory functions, disclosure of the names of the attendees is a breach of data protection, revealing the names of the organisations will cause them commercial damage, and finally, the information was supplied with an expectation of confidentiality, and so disclosure will breach that duty.

These claims are outrageous. DPIAs and prior disclosure exist, underpinned both by the law and by European Data Protection Board guidance. Despite the obvious benefits of developing a formal GDPR certification process (both allowing controllers to have their processing assessed, and the creation of a new industry at a time when the UK needs all the economic activity it can get), the ICO’s position on certification is supremely arrogant: “The ICO has no plans to accredit certification bodies or carry out certification at this time“. A process set out in detail in the GDPR is shunned, with the ICO choosing instead to spend huge amounts of time and money on a pet project which has no legal basis. Certification could spread expertise across the UK; the sandbox will inevitably be limited to preferred stakeholders. If they’re hiding the identities of those who show up to the workshop, it’s hard to imagine that the actual process will be any more transparent.

The ICO’s arguments about commercial prejudice under S43 of FOI are amateurish: “To disclose that a company has sent delegates to the event may in itself indicate to the wider sector and therefore potential competitors that they are in development of, or in the planning stages of a new innovative product which involves personal data“. A vital principle of FOI is that when using a prejudice-based exemption, you need to show cause and effect. Disclosure will or will be likely to lead to the harm described. How on earth could a company lose money, or become less competitive, purely because it was revealed that they attended an ICO event (which is what using S43 means)?

The ICO’s personal data and confidentiality arguments are equally weak – everyone who attended the meeting would know the identities of everyone else, and all were acting in an official or commercial capacity. This was not a secret or private meeting about a specific project; anyone with an interest was able to apply to attend. Revealing their attendance is not unfair, and there is plainly a legitimate interest in knowing who the ICO is talking to about a project into which the office is putting significant resources, and which will have an impact on products or services that may affect millions of people. The determination to hide this basic information and avoid scrutiny of the sandbox process undermines the credibility of the project itself, and makes the ICO’s claim to be an effective defender of public sector transparency ever more hypocritical.

Worst of all, if disclosure of the attendees’ identity was the calamity for commercial sensitivity and personal data that the ICO claims it to be, there should be an immediate and thorough investigation of how the information I requested came to be revealed on the ICO’s website and twitter account. The entire event was recorded and a promotional video was released. Several attendees (whose names and companies I cannot be given because of confidentiality, data protection and commercial prejudice) are identified and interviewed on camera, while there are numerous shots of other attendees who are clearly identifiable. Either the ICO has betrayed the confidentiality and personal data rights of these people, putting their companies at direct commercial risk, or their FOI response is a cack-handed attempt to avoid legitimate scrutiny. Either way, I strongly recommend that the left hand and the right hand in Wilmslow make some rudimentary attempts to get to know one another.

Long ago, I was one of a number of online commentators described by the ICO’s comms people as a ‘driver of negative sentiment’. More recently, one of Denham’s more dedicated apologists accused me of being one of the regulator’s “adversaries”. I’m not a fan of the ICO, and I never have been. But this stinks. The determination to throw every conceivable exemption at a simple request to know who the ICO is talking to suggests that the office is afraid of scrutiny, afraid of having to justify what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The incompetence of refusing to give me information that is on display on their website and Twitter account shows contempt for their obligations as an FOI regulator. The ICO has its head in the sand; as we drift out of the European mainstream into a lonely future on the fringes, their secrecy and incompetence should be matters of concern for anyone who cares about Data Protection.