Some thoughts on unsolicited campaign emails

On 1 July, I received an email to my work email address, with this header:

better together

My interest was piqued. I began reading:

Dear colleague,

In less than three months, on the 18th September, Scotland will take a decision with enormous and irreversible effects upon our universities. It is essential that we get this right.

My name is Andrew Miller, and I am a former Principal of the University of Stirling. I am writing to you because I firmly believe that we can achieve more together as part of the UK than we ever could apart. Having looked at the evidence, it’s clear that the best and brightest future for our world-class universities is achieved as part of the wider UK.

The text continued, inviting me to read a report and “warmly” inviting me to join Academics Together. How nice.

On 7 July, I received another email from Rob Murray, beginning “Dear Supporter,” inviting me to become a telephone ambassador for Better Together, with the following header:

blether together

Now, it is always nice to feel wanted, but there were a few issues with these unexpected communiqués. First, I recently joined Academics for Yes. My interest in Academics Together is limited. Secondly, and most importantly, I did not sign-up to receive any campaigning emails. The emails were unsolicited. This could be a [legal] problem.

Before I head off on a legal muse, it is only fair to follow Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s school of deduction and consider why I received these emails. I have already discounted my own volunteering. One option is I might have been sent them in error. Another is someone else may have signed me up: I have fond (ahem) memories of a friend signing me up for regular fromage email updates from a French cheese purveyor. Très drôle! All of these possibilities seem remote when the Twittersphere is consulted, as per this tweet and the replies to my tweet about the issue.

Is there a legal problem? My work email address is public. You can find it via my blog or my employer’s website very easily. I doubt there is a Data Protection issue in that regard.

What about the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance on spam emails? I refer to that because The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 are UK-wide, as is the ICO’s role in relation to that legislation. Those rules can, it seems, relate to election materials and (it can be reasonably inferred) referendum materials in the same way as it does to sales-pitches or scams. The authority for this is (ironically?) a precedent involving the SNP. The SNP tried to argue political matters were not covered but a 2006 decision ruled against that line of argument, as explained in further ICO materials (at paragraph 12 of the detailed guidance).

That detailed guidance of the ICO also makes reference to an earlier Better Together campaign, at paragraph 35:

If the organisation purchases email addresses or mobile phone numbers from a list broker with the intention of sending an electronic communication to those listed, it needs to be sure that the individuals have consented to receiving these forms of contact from it. Better Together, a campaign group in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, signed an undertaking in November 2013 that they would ensure any future electronic marketing was only sent to people who had consented to receiving this type of message.

What next? That is a good question. As things stand, I have not sent “unsubscribe” to the originator of any of the emails, because: 1) I did not subscribe in the first place; and 2) I am intrigued to see what else comes my way. I have not contacted any branch of the information police yet, but I would be keen to hear if anyone out there has any thoughts as to what the next steps could or should be.

Most importantly, if anyone from either campaign is reading this, please think very carefully before firing off unsolicited communications. Sure, you might want to win the referendum, but (in the same way as guerilla stickering is to be discouraged) please keep the campaign within the law.

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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10 Responses to Some thoughts on unsolicited campaign emails

  1. In-between those two same emails I sent them instruction to remove me from any lists they held my email address on and not to send my any further correspondence.

    Now it looks as if the emails that were harvested have been stored and they haven’t been removing people when they request. Which is as far as I know a second breach of the data protection act for Better Together.

  2. Hermiston says:

    I have also received these emails. I am also a member of Academics for Yes. I replied to the first email I received but did not get a reply. I wasn’t surprised as I challenged the content of the email, as well as asking where they got my email address.

    Ben Carroll (BT Operations) replied to my second email which had simply asked where they got my address. He said they had got it from my ‘publicly available’ institution’s website. I doubt this. My .ac.uk email address is on the university website but these emails came to my personal gmail account. Incidentally, I use gmail when interacting with Academics for Yes.

    A quick trawl of google shows you can easily find my .ac.uk account by typing in my name. My gmail account is not publicly available.

    So what next? I’m inclined to continue the conversation with Ben Carroll and ask again where they got my personal email address – needless to say I did not sign up for these emails (unless some cheesemonger did it in my stead).

    • Chris says:

      I also received these emails to my university address and my gmail address which is not as you say publically available. I am a member of academics for yes and had used my gmail address for this membership.

  3. dayetucker2011 says:

    A concerned farming colleague at the Highland Show showed me a text message that she’d received from UK Government/Together offering her business an opportunity to learn why it would be better to stick with the union. How did they get her mobile phone number?

  4. pjmatthews1982 says:

    I suppose we could refer it to the ICO in Scotland? or the Electoral Commission?

  5. pjmatthews1982 says:

    That’s three people over on Twitter saying they got the unsolicited Academics Together email, and then a shirty reply when they asked to be unsubscribed. See thread: https://twitter.com/urbaneprofessor/status/487182800240791552

  6. Tentsmuir says:

    As with Hermiston, they have now accessed my private gmail which gives no clue as to my name and is never used for academic purposes. I have invited them to refrain, only to recieve another. I have simply blocked them on that account. They can waste their time with my .ac.uk one all they like. Keep up the good work.

  7. frann leach says:

    OK. I don’t know why you haven’t reported this, all of you. Spam email is a crime. Also, may I politely suggest alerting some friendly media – which pretty much means the Sunday Herald, I guess.

  8. tiggsy says:

    OK. I don’t know why you haven’t reported this, all of you. Spam email is a crime. Also, may I politely suggest alerting some friendly media – which pretty much means the Sunday Herald, I guess.

  9. Pingback: Combeback: my 2014 in review | basedrones

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