British Telecommunications (BT) has been fined £77,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for sending 5 million nuisance emails.
The ICO found that BT’s actions contravened regulation 22 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). The fine has been imposed under The Data Protection Act 1998, which affords the ICO leeway to fine organizations up to £500,000.
The issue landed on the ICO’s radar after an individual complained about receiving emails relating to BT’s ‘My Donate’ platform, after previously opting-out from receiving further communications.
This led the ICO to investigate further, upon which it discovered two additional campaigns for charitable causes being maintained by BT, namely “Giving Tuesday” and “Stand Up To Cancer.”
BT proclaimed it felt the “My Donate” emails were “service messages” and thus fell outside the scope of the consent rules laid down under the PECR.
The emails sent on behalf of the “My Donate” campaign were sent to users who had opted-in to receiving direct marketing communications, as well as those who hadn’t given explicit consent or any consent at all. Moreover, the emails didn’t contain an opt-out link.
The “Giving Tuesday” and “Stand Up To Cancer” campaigns were only sent to those who had explicitly opted-in to receiving communications.
According to the ICO (PDF), BT states that those it categorized as “opted-in” also included those who hadn’t explicitly opted-out. This is referred to as a “soft opt-in” under the PECR and it provides that an organization may email its customers even if they haven’t explicitly opted-in to receive communications.
Overall, more than 1 million emails from the “My Donate” campaign were sent to users who had opted-out from receiving further email communications, while more than 2.4 million were sent to those who hadn’t explicitly opted-out. The emails were sent between 21st and 24rd December, 2015.
Meanwhile, in October 2016 BT sent more than 1.4 million emails to users who failed to specifically opt-out from communications. These emails related to its “Stand Up To Cancer” and “Giving Tuesday” campaigns.
While BT was relying on the soft opt-in provision, the ICO’s guidance states it only applies if:
- The details have been obtained during the course of selling a product or service;
- The organizations is marketing their own similar products and services; and
- The emails contain a means of opting-out from receiving further communications.
The ICO also states that “direct marketing” can also encompass promotion on of a company’s ideals or charitable causes.