Election candidates warned over unsolicited marketing

Data Protection Commissioner tells candidates not to attempt to illegally obtain people’s contact details

Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes warned election candidates not to attempt to obtain people’s contact details from third parties and not to send unsolicited marketing material. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes warned election candidates not to attempt to obtain people’s contact details from third parties and not to send unsolicited marketing material. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Tue, Apr 1, 2014, 15:50

Candidates for the local and European Parliament elections in May have been warned that they may face prosecution if they send electoral messages via email or text without the consent of the recipients.

The Data Protection Commissioner has written to all political parties to remind them they should also not attempt to obtain or use any contact information obtained from third parties, such as sports clubs.

In the course of previous election campaigns, Billy Hawkes received a substantial number of complaints from people who had been contacted in this way.

The commissioner opened 25 separate investigations as a direct result of marketing by political parties and candidates in the course of the 2011 general election.

It also got about 70 other complaints which were concluded without formal investigations being opened. He also warned one party over sending unsolicited texts during the presidential election campaign.

In his letter, Mr Hawkes reminded candidates that restrictions on direct marketing do not apply to direct mailing or post carried out in the course of political parties or their members.

Before 2011, the commissioner could not launch investigations into complaints about political parties or election candidates sending unsolicited email or texts, even when individuals had made it clear they did not want such contact.

But e-privacy regulations which came into force in 2011 mean politicians and candidates are subject to the same rules as other individuals and entities in that respect.

Mr Hawkes told candidates in his letter that investigations of previous complaints to his office had revealed that contact details were obtained from sources such as sports clubs, colleagues, friends and schools.

“The obtaining of personal data in all of these circumstances would constitute a breach of the Data Protection Acts, as there would be no consent from the individual for their details to be obtained and used in this way.”

He said candidates and parties should avoid sending messages by electronic means to persons other than those (such as party members) who had consented to the receipt of such messages.

“Be aware that should this office receive any complaints from members of the public that these criminal allegations will be investigated by this office and appropriate action will be taken.”

The commissioner said that where investigations of any complaints established that offences had been committed, the offender may be prosecuted. If convicted in the District Court they would face penalties of up to €5,000 for each separate offence.

A number of successful prosecutions have been taken by the commissioner’s office in the past against companies such as mobile phone companies and beauty salons for sending unsolicited texts and emails.