Daily Archives: 2011-11-07

Complaining about spam to the ICO

Like I imagine most readers of Light Blue Touchpaper, the vast majority of spam I receive is from overseas. For that you can try complaining to the sender’s ISP, but if the spam is being sent from a botnet, there’s not much you can do to stop them sending you more in the future. There might be an unsubscribe link, but clicking on it will just tell the sender that your address has a real person behind it, and might encourage them to send more spam.

Things are different if the sender (of spam email or text messaging) is in the UK, because then they might have violated the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), and you can complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The process isn’t fast, or particularly easy, and there are plenty of ways the ICO can avoid investigating, but it can get results.

The last time I went through this process was regarding a PR agency which was sending me repeated emails despite me asking to unsubscribe. I sent the complaint to the ICO in November 2010, and it took over 2 months for them to deal with it, but the ICO did conclude that based on the information available, the PR agency did violate the PECR. At the time, the ICO didn’t have powers to punish an organisation for PECR violations but they did remind the agency of their obligations. I was finally unsubscribed from the list and the PR agency even sent me a box of muffins as an apology.

Things don’t always go smoothly though. Before then I complained about an online DVD rentals company, for similar reasons. The ICO initially refused to invoke the PECR, claiming that “If you work for or attend higher education and are receiving unsolicited marketing emails to a university email address, there is no enforceable opt-out right provided by The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (the Regulations).” However, they did say that if my name is identifiable from my email address, then the sender is processing personal data and thus is covered by the Data Protection Act. I could therefore ask the company to unsubscribe me (which I had done), and if they continued to send me email after 28 days I could complain to the ICO again.

In fact, the email address to which I was sent the spam was my personal address (I did however send the complaint from my university address), which I told the ICO. The ICO then wrote to the company reminding them of their obligations. I never received further emails from the company so it probably worked, but I didn’t get any muffins or even an apology from them.

Since then, some things have changed — particularly that the ICO can now fine organisations up to £500,000 for very serious breaches of the PECR (although as far as I can tell the ICO has never done so). Hopefully this will encourage organisations to take their obligations seriously. I’ve sent a further complaint to the ICO, so I’ll keep you posted on how this progresses. If you want to try sending a complaint yourselves, instructions can be found on the ICO site.