The Labour Party has recently been hit with an ICO enforcement notice following complaints about their automated telemarketing campaign featuring the voice of Vera Duckworth. Jenny Reid reports.
Who: Information Commissioner's Office ("ICO")/ the Labour Party ("Labour")
When: 4 February 2010
Law stated as at: 26 February 2010
On 4 February 2010, the ICO served an enforcement notice on the Labour Party for a breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 ("PECRs") allegedly occurring back in June 2009.
The breach allegedly occurred when automated, canvassing calls were made on an industrial scale to potential voters featuring a recorded message.
Although the issue of enforcement notices is generally quite rare, this was not the first time that Labour had been in hot water with ICO over the use of such unsolicited automated marketing telephone calls.
Back in July 2007, a member of the public complained to ICO that he had received an automated telephone call featuring a recorded message from Liz Dawn, the actress who played Vera Duckworth in the long-running TV soap, Coronation Street.
Regulation 19 of the PECRs requires that the prior consent of the call recipient must be obtained before transmitting or instigating the transmission of communications comprising recorded matter for direct marketing purposes by means of an automated calling system.
Promoting a political party is as much marketing as advertising soap
The ICO has long made it clear that canvassing for votes is as much "marketing" as advertising soap. This meant that in the absence of any evidence showing that the complainant had previously consented to receiving them, Vera's auto-calls seemed to be in clear breach of Regulation 19.
In November 2007, the Labour Party gave its assurance that it would not make any further calls using this, or any similar, script.
However, lightning struck again.
On 4 June 2009, ICO received complaints from the Scottish National Party and a member of the public that Labour had again made unsolicited automated calls, again featuring Liz Dawn and this time encouraging listeners to vote for Labour in the forthcoming local government and European elections. Labour confirmed that the calls had been made to approximately 495,000 recipients in what they believed were Labour-supporting areas, with the majority of numbers being obtained from lists purchased commercially.
ICO finds two breaches
ICO found Labour to be in breach of both regulation 19 of PECR by virtue of using an automated calling system to send recorded messages to an individual who had not opted in to receiving such communications and regulation 24 of PECR as the call did not give details of the name of the Labour Party, nor its contact details.
Labour must not make any further automated direct marketing calls to recipients who have not consented, and a failure to comply with the enforcement notice could even lead to criminal prosecution.
Labour is not the only guilty political party. ICO issued guidance to the major political parties in April 2005, reminding them of their obligations under the Data Protection Act and PECR. In October of the same year, ICO served enforcement notices for breach of regulation 19 of PECR on the Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party (who, as we have seen, later shopped Labour for a similar breach) and in September 2008, an enforcement notice was served against the Liberal Democrats Party.
Why this matters:
It is clear that even the rule makers are not immune from the enforcement powers of ICO and, many would say, rightly so! It is also clear that even political parties are willing to push the boundaries when it comes to publicity and with the impending general election, it will be interesting to see what tactics the different parties employ in their efforts to gain voter support. There is also a strong likelihood of parties making complaints against their opposition in order to help themselves gain ground.