On 1 July, I received an email to my work email address, with this header:
My interest was piqued. I began reading:
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:
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.