Analyse This

With no small amount of fanfare, the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham recently announced a “formal” investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. The use of targeted ads in political campaigns – especially those where the Right triumphed – has been much in the headlines, and the ICO clearly feels the need to react. Denham blogged on her website: “this investigation is a high priority for my office in our work to uphold the rights of individuals and ensure that political campaigners and companies providing services to political parties operate within UK law.”. The investigation was greeted with enthusiasm – the journalist Carole Cadwalladr who has made a lot of the running over analytics in the Observer was supportive and the Data Protection activist Paul-Olivier Dehaye hailed it as ‘very important’.

Saying that Facebook is probably abusing privacy rights (and acting as a conduit for the abuse of privacy rights) is a bit like saying that rain is wet. Some of Cadwalladr’s reports have drawn fascinating (if hotly disputed) links between various right-wing vampires like Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon, and draw interesting (and hotly disputed) links between various Brexit campaigns and the tech firm Cambridge Analytica. Other of her stories are lame; a recent article complained that people Cadwalladr doesn’t approve of are outbidding people she does approve of when buying Facebook ads, which isn’t really news.

Worse than that, another article enthusiastically repeated Stephen Kinnock MP’s calls for an investigation into Tory data use, ignoring the fact that on the same day, Labour was hoovering up emails on its website without a privacy policy (which, like the marketing emails they will inevitably send) is a breach of Data Protection. The article makes the false claim that it is illegal to use data about political opinions without consent. Several people (including the chair of the National Association of Data Protection Officers) pointed this out to Cadwalladr, but the article is uncorrected at the time of writing. If you want to write about political parties and campaigns abusing data protection and privacy and you only acknowledge the dodgy things that one side gets up to, your allegations should not be taken too seriously. Politics is a swamp, and everyone is covered in slime. Given Cadwalladr’s shaky understanding of Data Protection law, it’s not hard to believe that her interest in the topic is mainly motivated by politics, and the ICO needs to be careful not to be sucked in.

It’s odd that allegations made to the ICO about data misuse by Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn, or candidates for the UNITE leadership have come to nothing, and yet here we have a formal investigation announced with great flourish into an issue that is largely perceived as affecting the right. I’m left-wing myself, but if Denham is going to take action over the political use of personal data, I expect her to be scrupulously even-handed.

However, I doubt very much whether action on this issue will ever happen. Just after the announcement, I made an FOI request to the Commissioner’s office about the nature of the investigation – how many people were involved and where from, what powers the ICO was using to conduct the investigation, and who the most senior person involved was. What I was trying to find out was simple – is this an investigation likely to lead to guidance or enforcement?

Here is what my FOI revealed (questions in bold, ICO answers below)

1) Under what specific powers is the investigation being carried out?

Initial intelligence gathering would fall under the general duties of the Commissioner to promote good practice (section 51) of the DPA. This may lead to use of investigatory powers and enforcement where necessary, under the provisions set out in Part V of the DPA, as well as the CMP powers at section 55A.  The Commissioner also has powers of entry and inspection under schedule 9 of the DPA.

2) How many members of staff are involved in the investigation?

It’s difficult to give an exact number, the ‘group’ involved will need to be established and documented in terms of reference which will be done shortly. At this stage, from the information we hold, we can say that 16 member of staff have been involved and another 4 members of staff are also expected to be involved as the investigation progresses.

3, 4 and 5-
 
What are the job titles of the staff involved?
What is the name of the most senior person involved in the investigation?
Which department and team do these staff belong to?

Senior Policy Officer – Private Sector Engagement
Group Manager – Private Sector Engagement
Policy Officer – Private Sector Engagement
Lead Communications Officer – Communication Planning
Senior Policy Officer – Public Policy and Parliament
Intelligence and Research Officer – Intelligence Team
Team Manager (Intelligence) – Intelligence Team
Lead Intelligence and research Officer – Intelligence Team
Team Manager – Enforcement (PECR) – Investigations
Group Manager (Public Policy & Parliament) – Public Policy and Parliament
Senior Policy Officer (Public Policy & Parliament) – Public Policy and Parliament
Team Manager (Enforcement Team 2) – Enforcement
Team Manager – Communications – Communications Planning
Head of Corporate Affairs – Communications Planning
Group Manager – Public Sector Engagement – Public Sector Engagement

The most senior person is Steve Wood – Head of International Strategy & Intelligence – International & Intelligence Management

*************************************************************************************

What does this tell us?

The main contributors are Engagement (which is presumably the successor to the old Strategic Liaison department whose chief role was holding hands with stakeholders), and policy (whose main contribution to the debate on big data is this endless and almost unreadable discussion paper). The most senior person involved is Steve Wood, who has an academic background. Of the 16 involved, just two are from Enforcement, outnumbered even by the comms staff. Apologists for Wilmslow will leap on that bit that says “This may lead to use of investigatory powers and enforcement where necessary“, but my response to that is an armpit fart. The ICO is starting from the perspective of promoting good practice run by an academic, which is just about the silliest response to this issue that I can think of.

Some areas that the ICO regulates are prime candidates for guidance. The public sector, charities and regulated industries are likely to be influenced by what the ICO says. Other areas – list broking and compensation claims spring to mind – are immune to policy and guidance, but politics is the best example. Politics is about power – if a party, campaign or individual can take power while breaching DP law, they will. It isn’t that they don’t understand the law, it is that they don’t care. No political party or campaign will be influenced by ICO guidance, and to pretend otherwise is childish. All major political parties (Labour, LibDems, SNP, Tory) have received a PECR Enforcement Notice over automated calls, and yet they flout PECR all the time with emails and yet more calls, as anyone who heard from David Lammy knows only too well. Even when the ICO fined Leave.EU during the referendum, the campaign’s reaction (“Whatever”) could not have been more derisive because they could afford to pay the fine. Either the ICO comes into politics using its powers to the maximum possible extent against everyone (£500,000 penalties, or more useful, enforcement notices that are backed up by prosecution), or they should leave the field.

We already know that the outcome of this investigation will be revealed long after the election is over, when anything that the Commissioner says or does will have no effect on the real world. On the evidence of my FOI, I predict there will be no fines, no enforcement notices, no action. There will be a long, thorough and thoughtful report that nobody in politics will pay attention to, and only people like me will read. The first task of the Supervisory Authority under GDPR is to ‘monitor and enforce’. Long ago, when I worked there, the joke went around the ICO that senior officers operated under the mantra ‘thinking is doing’, as an excuse to avoid taking any action. I don’t care if no senior officer ever actually said this – on big strategic issues, the ICO has always laboured under this approach. Denham’s first big splash was to follow through on charity enforcement when the easy choice was to back down. She deserves praise for that decision. However, If there is an international right-wing conspiracy to hijack democracy across the world, I don’t think a thought symposium is going to save us.

Another fine mess

For those working in Data Protection, there are many interesting things to note about the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation. There is the clarification of consent, which may send tawdry marketers into a spin. There is the tightening of the rules over criminal records. There is the helpful emphasis on risk. My current favourite thing is a sly anti-establishment streak – here and there, the GDPR returns to the theme of the power imbalance between the data subject and the big public institution, and seeks to even up the score.

For some, however, there is only one thing to talk about. All that matters is the fines. Fines fines fines, all day long. A conference held in London last week was Fine City as far as the tweets were concerned. COMPANIES MIGHT GO BUST, apparently. Meanwhile, the Register breathlessly reheated a press release from cyber security outfit NCC Group, featuring a magical GDPR calculator that claims ICO’s 2016 penalties would have been either £59 million or £69 million under GDPR (the figure is different in the Register’s headline and story, and I can’t be bothered to find the original because it’s all bullshit).

This is my prediction. There will never be a maximum GDPR penalty in the UK. Nobody will ever be fined €20 million (however we calculate it in diminishing Brexit Pounds), or 4% of annual turnover. There will be a mild swelling in the amount of fines, but the dizzy heights so beloved of the phalanx of new GDPR experts (TRANSLATION: people in shiny suits who were in sales and IT in 2015) will never be scaled. It’s a nonsense myth from people with kit to sell. I have something to sell, friends, and I’m not going to sell it like this.

I have no quibble with DP officers and IG managers hurling a blood-curdling depiction of the penalties at senior management when they’re trying to get more / some resources to deal with the GDPR onslaught – I would have done it. There is probably a proper term for the mistake NCC made with their calculation, but I’m calling it the Forgetting The ICO Has To Do It Syndrome. NCC say Pharmacy2U’s penalty would inflate from £130,000 to £4.4 million, ignoring the fact that the decision would not be made by a robot. Pharmacy2U flogged the data of elderly and vulnerable people to dodgy health supplement merchants, and ICO *only* fined them £130,000, despite having a maximum of £500,000. Of course, some penalties have caused genuine pain for cash-strapped public authorities, but when NCC say that their adjusted-for-GDPR Pharmacy2U fine represented “a significant proportion of its revenues and potentially enough to put it out of business“, they’re not adjusting their hot air for reality.

Take the example of a monetary penalty issued by the ICO in March against a barrister. The barrister was involved in proceedings at the Family Court and the Court of Protection, so her files contained sensitive information about children and vulnerable adults. Despite guidance issued by the Law Society in 2013, they were stored unencrypted on her home computer. While upgrading the software on the machine, her husband backed up the files to online storage. Some of the files were indexed by search engines, and were subsequently found by a local authority lawyer.

The ICO fined the barrister £1000, reduced to £800 if they paid on time. I don’t think all barristers are loaded, but most could pay a penalty of £800 without going bankrupt. £800 isn’t remotely enough for a breach as basic and avoidable as this. The aggravating factors are everywhere – the Law Society guidance, the lack of encryption, the fact that the husband had access to the data. If the ICO was capable of issuing a £4.4 million penalty, they’d fine a barrister more than £800 for this mess. And what’s worse, they redacted the barrister’s name from the notice. The ICO offered no explanation for this, so I made an FOI request for the barrister’s name and for information about why the name was redacted.

They refused to give me the name, but disclosed internal correspondence about their decision to redact. There is a lot in the response to be concerned about. For one thing, in refusing to give me the name, the ICO contradicts its own penalty notice. The notice describes an ongoing contravention from 2013 (when the Law Society guidance was issued) to 2016 (when the data was discovered). Nevertheless, the FOI response states that “this data breach was considered a one off error“, and a reference to this characterisation is also made in the notes they disclosed to me.

If it was a one-off error, ICO couldn’t have issued the penalty, because they don’t have the power to fine people for incidents, only for breaches (in this case, the absence of appropriate technical and organisation security measures required by the Seventh Data Protection principle). Given that the notice states explicitly that the breach lasted for years, the ICO’s response isn’t true. It’s bad enough that the ICO is still mixing up incidents and breaches four years after this confusion lost them the Scottish Borders Tribunal appeal, it’s even worse that they seem not to understand the point of fining Data Controllers.

In the notes disclosed to me about the decision to redact the notice, ICO officials discuss the “negative impact” of the fine on the barrister, especially as she is a “professional person who is completely reliant on referrals from external clients“. Despite the Head of Enforcement putting a succinct and pragmatic case for disclosure: “it is easier to explain why we did (proportionate, deterrent effect) rather than why we didn’t“, he is unfortunately persuaded that the most important thing is to “avoid any damage to reputation”. Bizarrely, one person claimed that they could “get the deterrent message across” despite not naming the barrister.

The GDPR requires that fines be “effective, proportionate and dissuasive” – an anonymous £800 fine fails on each point. Anyone who takes their professional obligations seriously needs no horror stories to persuade them. For those who do not, an effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalty is either a stinging fine or naming and shaming. The ICO had no appetite for either option, and effectively let the barrister get away with it. They valued her professional reputation above the privacy of people whose data she put at risk, and future clients who will innocently give their confidential and private information to someone with this shoddy track record.

If the NCC Group, and all the various vendors and GDPR carpetbaggers are to be believed, within a year, the UK will operate under a regime of colossal, multi-million pound fines that will bring errant businesses to their knees. In reality, the ICO cut the fines on charities by 90% to avoid upsetting donors, and rendered their enforcement against an irresponsible data controller pointless for fear of putting her out of business.

These two pictures cannot be reconciled. It is entirely possible for the ICO to put someone out of business – indeed, many recipients of their PECR penalties are forced into liquidation (this may be a ploy to avoid the fines, but nevertheless, the businesses close). But the majority of PECR penalties are issued against businesses operating on the very fringe of legality – they are not mainstream data controllers. They are not nice, professional barristers. They are not the audience for the Great GDPR Fine Hysteria. If the ICO cannot stomach the risk of putting a single barrister out of business pour encourager les autres, it is disingenuous to pretend that they will rain down fire on mainstream data controllers after May 2018. We’ll get more of the same – cautious, reactive, distracted by the incident, and unwilling to take aim at hard targets. Plus ça change.

Fair Cop

The bedrock of Data Protection is fairness. You cannot gain consent without fairness. Your interests are not legitimate interests if they are secret interests. Unless you have an exemption or you claim that telling the person represents disproportionate effort (i.e. the effort of telling outweighs the actual impact), you have to tell the person whose data you are using the purposes for which their data will be used, and any other information necessary to make the processing fair.

The ICO’s Privacy Notices Code of Practice is not ambiguous, nor was its predecessor. It is impossible to read the ICO’s published guidance on fair processing without taking away the key message, consistently repeated for more than a decade: if something is surprising or objectionable, especially if it involves some kind of impact or sharing outside the organisation, it should be spelt out. New-ish Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham seems to have chosen to reverse the ICO’s previously timid, unimaginative approach to the first principle with a pair of civil monetary penalties against charities. We have one each for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the British Heart Foundation, with the promise of more to come. You might say it was unfortunate that charities are first in line rather than, say, credit reference agencies or list brokers (to be a touch tautological). It was the charity sector’s misfortune to fall under the Daily Mail’s Basilisk gaze, and they have to accept that we are where we are.

To issue a civil monetary penalty, there are three hurdles for the ICO to clear. Firstly, there must be a serious breach. Both charities used commercial companies to profile thousands (and in one case, millions) of donors, buying up data from publicly available sources* to assess their wealth and resources, they shared data with other charities whose identity they did not know via a commercial company, and in the case of the RSPCA, they bought contact details to fill in data that donors had provided. The average donor did not have any idea that this was happening. I can see there’s a problem that when everyone in the charity sector knows that wealth screening goes on, it seems normal. But I’ve been using it as an example on my training courses ever since the Mail revealed it, and bear in mind that these are often seasoned data protection professionals who know about data sharing and disclosure, attendees are invariably shocked and some cases revolted by what I tell them.

There is no doubt in my mind that this processing needed to be spelt out, and there is no doubt from the notices that it was not. Carefully selected third parties or partners has been a stupid lie in marketing for years, but not even knowing where the data goes is much worse than the usual flogging it to all comers. At least the list broker knows who he’s flogging it to, even though the only careful selection is the ability to pay.

The second hurdle is the need to show that the breach is likely to cause damage or distress to the affected data subjects. It’s been known for quite some time that the ICO was planning to take enforcement action over the Mail stories, and the gossip I heard from charities was that fines were likely. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t convinced. The Information Commissioner lost a Data Protection Tribunal appeal from Scottish Borders Council because they bungled the damage / distress element of a £250000 CMP over pension records found in recycling bins. ICO made a flawed claim that the loss of paper pension records was likely to result in identity theft, but Borders had an expert witness who could argue convincingly that this was not true. The link between the breach (the absence of a contract with the company processing the data) and the damage was broken, and the ICO lost.

But this case is different. The ICO does not need to make a link between an incident and a breach, because they are bound up together here. Both notices show that the ICO has given considerable thought to the distress angle. There is no question that the charities breached the first principle, and their only hope for an appeal is to convince the Tribunal that people would not be caused substantial distress by secret profiling and data sharing after an act of generosity. This is not science, and all I can say is that I am persuaded. But for an appeal to be successful, the charities will need to persuade a Tribunal with strong experience and knowledge of DP and PECR from the numerous (and almost exclusively doomed) marketing appeals.

The third element requires the breach to be deliberate or a situation where the charities ought reasonably to have known about the breach. As I have already said, the ICO’s position on fair processing is well known in my sector and available to anyone who can type the ICO’s web address. I think it’s possible that the charities didn’t know what they were doing was a breach, but in my opinion, this is because the Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board effectively acted as a firewall between charities and reality. The advice (often inaccurate and out of date) came from the IoF, and complaints about charities went to the FRSB and no further. When your code of practice is written by the people who earn their living from fundraising and most in your sector are doing the same thing as you are, it’s not hard to fool yourself into thinking it’s OK. But ‘everybody does it’ will cut no ice with the Tribunal. The RSPCA and the BHF are not tiny charities flailing in the dark – they are massive, multi-million pound operations with vastly greater resources than many of my clients.

Daniel Fluskey, head of Policy for the Institute of Fundraising, whose apparent lack of experience or qualifications in Data Protection does not prevent him from writing inaccurate articles for the charity sector on GDPR, has already weighed in, saying that the ICO should be providing the specific wording that charities require: “Charities need more detail on the ICO’s view of what lawful practice looks like: what form of words would have passed the test?” The Information Commissioner is the regulator for every organisation, of every size and shape, that processes personal data. If they start writing tailored wording for charities, they will have to do it for everyone else as well. It is a ridiculous demand. I think the ICO should move on to the data pools, wealth screeners and list brokers, but if she could find the time to issue an enforcement notice on the Institute of Fundraising, forbidding them ever to speak or write on Data Protection matters again, the third sector would have a fighting chance of complying.

Besides, how hard is it to find compliant wording? Nobody – especially not the trade association for fundraisers – should be allowed to present this as a byzantine and complex task. The individual doesn’t need to know what software you’re using, or whether cookies are involved. They need to understand the purpose – what are you collecting, what are you going to do with it, who are you going to give it to? This should be presented without euphemism or waffle, but it’s when you strip out the legalistic nonsense, you see the problem. It isn’t that the poor charities were labouring under the burden of complex data protection rules. They could not comply with the Data Protection Act because what they were doing (and in RSPCA’s case, are apparently still doing) is so unattractive:

  • We will share your details with unspecified charities via a commercial company. We don’t know who they are.
  • We will buy your phone number, postal or email address from a commercial company if you have not given it to us.
  • We will use commercial companies to compile a profile of your wealth and property to work out whether to ask you for further donations. If you are likely to be worth a lot when you die, we will use this information to ask you for a bequest.

When Reactiv Media appealed their PECR penalty, the Tribunal rejected their appeal and increased the penalty. Like a lot of the spammers, they put themselves into administration to avoid paying up, but this option is not available to household name charities. If either the RSPCA or BHF appeal, they are dragging themselves deeper into the mud, and very possibly spending thousands more of donors’ money to do so. If they say that what they did wasn’t a breach, or that they couldn’t have been expected to know that it was, their officers, advice and business model will be scrutinised to a doubtlessly painful extent. The claims management company Quigley and Carter found themselves described as “feckless” and “most unimpressive” in the course of being filleted during a recent failed appeal. Do charities really want that? Even if they decide to roll the dice solely on distress, does either charity really want to acknowledge a serious breach that they knew or ought to have know about in the hope of getting the fine overturned on a technicality? Do they want ICO to call donors as witnesses?

The business model of pressure selling, TPS-busting, heavy texting, data sharing and donor-swapping adopted by some of the UK’s most celebrated charities resembles nothing so much as the activities of the claims management, PPI spammers (i.e. the scum of the earth). For all the noise and bluster on Twitter and in the charity press this week, there is an uncomfortable truth that has to be faced. The hated Daily Mail unearthed it, and the ICO has rightly acted on it. Some big charities have run an end-justifies-the-means approach to marketing and they have got away with it for a decade. Fundraisers ruled the roost, and compliance has been sidelined or ignored. Given how much money the RSPCA and the BHF have raised from fundamentally unlawful practices, they should pull back and rethink how they get donations in the future. They should ignore the Institute of Fundraising’s every word on Data Protection and PECR, and like every other charity, concentrate on reading and applying the ICO’s Code on Privacy Notices and guidance on Direct Marketing.

And right now, if there is a fundraiser sitting with the two CMP notices working out how to at the same time devise a method to raise loads of cash for their cause while complying with Data Protection and PECR, I hope they wipe the floor with everyone else.

*citation needed

Any last requests?

A month ago, the redoubtable information rights expert and blogger Jon Baines wrote about an odd change on the ICO’s website. Just after the EU referendum vote, the ICO published a bold statement, calling for Data Protection standards in the UK to be equivalent to those in the EU. Shortly after, the statement disappeared. Around a week later, it was replaced by something more bland. Jon wondered why the ICO had resiled from their original position. He was, however, fortunate to receive a comment from an ICO spokesman:

“We noted the debates about different options that emerged following the referendum result and we decided to move to a simpler statement to avoid being too closely associated to any one particular position”

I believe that this statement is untrue.

After a conversation with Jon, I made an FOI request to the ICO for “Any recorded information on the decision to remove the statement, including who made the decision to remove it, and why it was removed“. Remarkably, the ICO claims to hold just one email that is relevant to my request (I’m not convinced, so I am following this up), but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the ICO did not change the statement because they “noted the debates“. They changed the statement because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the government department responsible for Data Protection, asked them to.

A DCMS official emailed Christopher Graham, the former Information Commissioner, directly on 28th June:

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 09.07.02

The revised version is identical to the statement that you’ll find here on the ICO website.

The DCMS position is understandable – a few days after an unexpected vote, it’s not hard to imagine that they hadn’t reached a final position on GDPR. I’d be surprised if they were certain now, frustrating as that might be for the likes of me. But when the DCMS talks about it being far to early for “us” to be so definitive, they are not talking about the ICO, which is legally separate from and independent of Government. If the former Commissioner and his staff believed that the DPA is out of date and not fit for purpose, they were right to say so. Bear in mind that the statement in question was made after the vote, not when the ICO view could in any way have influenced its outcome (or when such an allegation could be made). DCMS are free to disagree with them, and indeed to ignore them if they so choose. I think GDPR-lite is a terrible idea, but they can pursue if they think it’s right. I’m not even sure I want to criticise the DCMS request – it’s quite clearly not an instruction.

However, for the ICO to change their statement (and by default, their official position on the GDPR) is a significant and worrying step. The ICO’s position can be identical to the DCMS one, but only if that’s because the ICO thinks DCMS is correct. It would be in no-one’s interests for the ICO to challenge and contradict DCMS merely to show that they’re nobody’s poodle. But Wilmslow’s reaction to the Brexit vote was clear, and now it’s not. Was the original position wrong? Is there any reason why the ICO cannot be allied to one particular position if they think it’s the right one?

Equally, if the ICO is going to change its public position, it should be honest with the public about why it is doing so. The statement on the ICO website says

At the annual report launch on 28 June 2016, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham updated the ICO statement

Whereas, what it should say is:

At the request of the DCMS, at the annual report launch on 28 June 2016, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham updated the ICO statement

As embarrassing as this might be, if the ICO is content to follow the debate about the future of the GDPR in the UK rather than leading it, it should be honest enough to admit that this is their position. I’ve already blogged about the bizarre situation that the ICO team that deals with complaints about political parties and councils are managed by a serving Labour Council leader. Here is another situation where the ICO’s ability to make robust, independent decisions appears to be compromised.

This depressing episode happened in the dying days of the previous Commissioner’s tenure; more than ever, I am glad that he is gone. We have a new Commissioner about whom I have seen and heard nothing but encouraging things. I can only hope that when faced with decisions like this in the future, Elizabeth Denham takes an more independent approach.

Culture, Media and Spam

Most of the news and comment I heard about the Queen’s Speech suggested that it was a hole in the air, with the Government wanting to avoid doing anything of any consequence before the resolution of the EU vote in June. It was a surprise, therefore, to see provisions in the proposed Digital Economy Bill that will change the face of direct marketing.

At the moment, the rules for direct marketing are a mixture of Data Protection (for postal marketing) and PECR (for email & texts, live calls, automated calls and fax). PECR breaks down into subsets, with some forms of marketing requiring consent (email & text, automated calls, fax) and some done without consent and with opt-out (live calls, with the ability to opt-out of all calls via the Telephone Preference Service.

But consider this line from the full version of the Queen’s Speech:

Protection for consumers from spam email and nuisance calls by ensuring consent is obtained for direct marketing, and that the Information Commissioner is empowered to impose fines on those who break the rules.

My first reaction to this was that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport were incompetent: PECR already requires consent for email, and the Information Commissioner already has the power to impose fines for breaches of consent. Whatever else, this is still true, and DCMS should explain why they are announcing things that have been in place since 2003 (consent for email) and 2011 (fines) respectively. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to interpret this sentence as meaning anything other than a change in the rules for live calls. It’s not earth-shattering: it’s only lawful to cold-call people who aren’t on TPS and who haven’t directly opted out, which is probably a minority of the overall population. But nevertheless, the proposal as written abolishes the need for the Telephone Preference Service and inverts current practice.

It certainly has the merit of neatness: PECR would make more sense if all electronic direct marketing had to be opt-in. However, it will have consequences far and wide. There are plenty of lead generators and telemarketing companies who still make cold-calls, and they would be dead in the water. I would shed no tears over this (I think the lead generation and list broking industry is fundamentally unlawful, and most of the folk in the call centres would just end up in hopefully less rancid call centres). However, killing off the telemarketing industry is bold.

It will also create an even more stark contrast with the Fundraising Preference Service, which in its current form allows someone to stop all contact with all charities. It’s not even clear whether a person will technically be able to opt-in to individual charities that they do want to hear from if they’re on the FPS. It would be moronic if this situation wasn’t clarified, but people who do moronic things tend to be good at maintaining their standards. Given that the Digital Economy Bill apparently puts all* electronic marketing on an opt-in basis, charities might legitimately argue that the FPS is unnecessary, and they would have a point.

There are other issues. If all email marketing has to be done on the basis on consent, this also presumably kills off the ‘soft opt-in’. The ‘soft opt-in’ allows a company to send email marketing on an opt-out basis, as long as the email address in question has been obtained in the course of a sale, and as long as the products being marketed are their own, and are similar to the one that was originally purchased. Requiring all email marketing to be done on the basis of consent would remove this option (NB: if you think the absence of an opt-out can be interpreted as consent, you are a moron).

Finally, the proposal doesn’t mention texts, hence my * above. Texts are as much of a nuisance for people as live calls or emails, and have been the subject of routine enforcement action by the Information Commissioner since 2011. PECR treats email and text as the same, so it’s entirely possible that the Government are treating them so. It’s equally possible that this is a back of a fag packet proposal to bulk out a weak bill in a thin speech. One indicator that this might be the case is that the Information Commissioner, explicitly mentioned in the proposal, has not reacted to it in any way. There is no press release, and not a single tweet, despite a run of tweets this week about nuisance calls and other PECR related action. One could be forgiven for thinking that they didn’t know about it (I will be doing an FOI to find out).

You might think that spinning 833 words out of a single sentence is overkill, but on the face of it, the proposed change will have a considerable impact. Like me, I hope you will be watching the progress of the Digital Economy Bill with interest.