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Telegraph fined for breaching e-Privacy rules with election message

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has fined Telegraph Media Group £30,000 after finding it responsible for a serious breach of UK privacy rules.

The watchdog said the media company had breached the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) when it sent readers an email containing a letter from the editor of the newspaper which urged them to vote Conservative in the UK general election earlier this year.

The ICO ruled that The Telegraph did not have the "specific consent" of those readers to send on such a communication.

PECR generally prohibits organisations from sending or instigating the transmission of unsolicited communications to consumers for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the person receiving the mail has given their prior consent for the messages to be sent or other limited exceptions apply.

According to guidance issued by the ICO, organisations need to obtain "extremely clear and specific" consent from people in order to conduct digital direct marketing. The ICO said that businesses cannot rely on consent provided to third parties unless the intended recipient of electronic direct marketing messages "intended for their consent to be passed on to the organisation doing the marketing".

Companies can engage in direct marketing via email without consumers' consent under PECR if they have "obtained the contact details of the recipient of that electronic mail in the course of the sale or negotiations for the sale of a product or service to that recipient", where the marketing is for "similar products and services only" and providing the recipient has a "simple means" to refuse the use of their contact details for that marketing "at the time of each subsequent communication". 

In a statement, ICO head of enforcement Steve Eckersley said: "People may well perceive the paper’s editorial content to have a political bias, but when The Telegraph emailed people directly, calling for them to vote for a political party, they crossed a line. People signed up to The Telegraph’s email service so they could catch up on the news or find out about subjects they were interested in. They did not expect to be told who they should be voting for."

According to the ICO's monetary penalty notice (16-page / 626KB PDF), The Telegraph had only decided to include the newspaper editor's letter in its usual morning email to readers at the last minute. This meant that the publisher's "data team did not have time to properly consider the tone and nature of the communication that had changed from being an editorial communication to a marketing communication and that the marketing permission criteria should be applied to the email", it said.

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