Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Political Spam

The 2004 Report of the Data Protection Commissioner (pdf - summary in word format) has just been released. There are several interesting case studies - one of which confirms that political spam is alive and well in Ireland. Note the unrepentent attitude of the politician in question:
[A] complaint ... was received in late 2003 ... about an unsolicited email of a political nature which had been sent by a County Councillor, Jon Rainey, of Fingal County Council. It was alleged that in June 2003 he had “harvested” email addresses from the address line of an email sent by a third party – who was also a County Councillor but of another party. (“Harvesting” refers to the addition to one’s own mailing list of any email address received on the “to” or “cc” line of the email). This was in contravention of the provisions of S.I. No. 535 of 2003 (European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services (Data Protection) Regulations 2003) which provides for prior consent for unsolicited emailing of individuals for direct marketing purposes, including political purposes. I only name Mr. Rainey in my Report as he failed to cooperate with my investigations and only acknowledged the facts of the complaint 6 months after I had first raised them and then only when I had to formally issue him with an Information Notice under sections 10 and 12 of the Acts. At that late stage, he confirmed that the details of email addresses “harvested” from another email had been deleted from his system and that no further details had been obtained in this manner. However, his attitude to my Office was that the matter was of little consequence and he complained that I had “pestered” him. It is important that public representatives and candidates for elective office realise the importance of their obligations under the Acts and that, in so far as responding to legitimate investigations from statutory office holders is concerned, in no sense should they consider themselves above the law.
Irish politicians have been active spammers in the past, with the 2002 election campaign seeing voters annoyed by automated recorded phone calls and sms text messages, which were ultimately stopped by the intervention of the Data Protection Commissioner.

(There are two uncertainties raised by this case though. First, how did the councillor breach the 2003 Regulations by his actions in June 2003, when those Regulations only came into force on 6 November 2003? Second, under Irish law there is now an exemption for "direct mailing ... in the course of political activities" (s.1 of the Data Protection Act 1988 as amended). Is the term "direct mailing" wide enough to cover email (allowing this type of spam), or would it be limited to snail mail?)

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