Are UK companies flouting spam laws?

One in three UK companies is reportedly ignoring privacy regulations, but the information commissioner's office isn't convinced
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Many UK companies are failing to comply with regulations governing the sending of unsolicited emails, according to a survey released by a direct marketing services vendor.

The survey, published by CDMS this week, claims that 31 percent of UK companies do not comply with the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which bans UK companies from spamming private individuals.

However, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which is the watchdog responsible for enforcing the privacy and electronic communications regulations (PECR), has claimed that the results of the survey do not match its own experience.

The regulations say companies should only send unsolicited sales messages via email to non-customers if they have actively agreed that they want to receive them. In practice, this means that whenever someone's details are recorded — for instance, as part of a money-off promotion or competition — they must be asked whether they want to receive subsequent sales marketing e-messages from that company or any other third party.

CDMS claims that offering someone the opportunity to opt out of receiving unsolicited emails or pre-ticking an opt-in box does not comply with the regulations. Instead, customers must actively agree to receive such messages.

Companies in different sectors, including banking, insurance, retail, and telecoms, were asked whether they consistently offered non-customers the opportunity to actively consent to further marketing emails when their details were recorded as the result of a promotion or enquiry.

Only 69 percent of the companies polled said they did offer non-customers the opportunity to opt-in to further promotions before sending mail.

While the ICO stopped short of actively disagreeing with the results of the survey, it said it hadn't seen evidence that large numbers of UK companies were flouting the law.

"It doesn't really chime with the ICO's experience," said an ICO spokeswoman. "We've had a fairly low number of complaints over a three-year period."

The ICO tends to pursue enforcement actions when it receives complaints about unsolicited junk email. Since the regulations came into force in UK law in 2004, the ICO has received only three complaints about insurance marketing, 14 about travel marketing, 10 about telecoms and five about lenders.

However, the ICO admitted that the number of complaints it has received may not reflect the number of instances of unsolicited email sent by UK companies.

"Mainly we act when we receive complaints, but because of the number of UK companies it's difficult for us to know when they are complying with the directive," said the ICO spokeswoman.

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