This morning, I was spending my leisure time researching options for email newsletters. Just to be clear, this isn’t something I would necessarily choose to do for fun, but is linked to my role as Digital Officer for a certain professional association for information rights professionals.
And I found this:
(for the record; the annotations are mine).
Which basically translates to:
“We are going to follow you all over the web, conducting surveillance on you without telling you and then use what we have discovered to try and predict the best ways to manipulate you in order to make money for our customers, clients and suppliers.”
Oh yeah, and there’s also this: “As you use our Services, you may import into our system personal information you’ve collected from your Subscribers. We have no direct relationship with your Subscribers, and you’re responsible for making sure you have the appropriate permission for us to collect and process information about those individuals. We may transfer personal information to companies that help us provide our Services (“Service Providers.”) All Service Providers enter into a contract with us that protects personal data and restricts their use of any personal data in line with this policy. As part of our Services, we may use and incorporate into features information you’ve provided or we’ve collected about Subscribers as Aggregate Information. We may share this Aggregate Information, including Subscriber email addresses, with third parties in line with the approved uses in Section 6.[screenshot]”
Now, I have most definitely had emails from businesses that I’ve used in the past, which – upon unsubscribing – I have discovered are using MailChimp. No-one has ever told me that when I gave my email address to them, they would pass it on to a US company who would then use it for stalking and profiling me. Well, hur-hur, it’s the Internet, what did I expect?
Wait. Being “on the internet” does not mean “no laws apply”. And in the UK, for UK-registered organisations, the UK Data Protection Act does most certainly apply. You cannot contract out of your organisation’s responsibilities under DPA. Now, for those of you reading this who aren’t DP geeks (Hi, nice to see you, the party’s just getting started!), here’s a breakdown of why I think using MailChimp might be a problem for UK organisations….
The UK Data Protection Act has 8 Principles, the first of which is that “personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully”. Part of “fair and lawful” is that you must be transparent about your use of personal data, and you mustn’t breach any of the Principles, commit any of the offences or use the data for activity which is otherwise inherenty unlawful (like scams and fraud, for example). One key requirement of being “fair and lawful” is using a Fair Processing Statement (a.k.a “Privacy Notice“) to tell people what you are doing with their data. This needs to include any activity which they wouldn’t reasonably expect – and I would think that having all of your online activity hoovered up and used to work out how best to manipulate you would fit squarely into that category. Or am I just old-fashioned?
Anyway, using MailChimp for email marketing if you don’t tell people what that implies for their privacy? Fail No.1.
Then there’s the small matter of MailChimp’s role in this relationship. Under DPA, we have Data Controllers and Data Processors. For the sake of user-friendliness, let’s call them respectively “Boss” and “Bitch”. The organisation that is the Boss gets to make the decisions about why and how personal data is used. The organisation that is the Bitch can only do what the Boss tells them. The terms of how the Boss-Bitch relationship works needs to be set out in a contract. If the Bitch screws up and breaches privacy law, the Boss takes the flak, so the Boss should put strict limitations on what the Bitch is allowed to do on their behalf.
Now, I haven’t seen the Ts and Cs that MailChimp are using or whether there is any mention of Data Controller/Data Processor relationships but I doubt very much if they could be considered a proper Bitch because they use a lot of subscriber data for their own ends, not just those of the organisation on whose behalf they are sending out emails. So if MailChimp aren’t a Bitch, then they are their own Boss – and so giving personal data to them isn’t the equivalent of using an agency for an in-house operation, it’s actually disclosure of the information to a third party to use for their own purposes (which may not be compatible with the purposes you originally gathered the data for). Now one of the things you’re supposed to tell people in a privacy notice is whether you are going to disclose their data, what for, and to whom. You’re also not supposed to re-purpose it without permission. Oops again (Fail No. 2)
I’m gonna skirt past the 8th Principle (don’t send data overseas without proper protection), because there’s just so much going on at the moment about the implications of sending data to the US, we’ll be here for hours if I get into that. Suffice to say, if the Data Controller (Boss) is a US firm, you have no rights to visibility of your data, control over its accuracy, use, security or anything else (Principles 2-7). None. Kthxbye. That might be fine with you, but unless you are informed upfront, the choice of whether or not to engage with the organisation that’s throwing your data over the pond to be mercilessly exploited, is taken away from you. Not fair. Not lawful. Fail No.3.
Aaaaand finally (for this post, anyway) there’s the PECR problem. Simplified: PECR is the law that regulates email marketing, one of the requirements of which is that marketing by email, SMS and to TPS-registered recipients requires prior consent – i.e., you can’t assume they want to receive it, you must ask permission. It does however contain a kind of loophole where if you have bought goods or services from an organisation, they are allowed to use email marketing to tell you about similar goods and services that you might be interested in (until you tell them to stop, then they can’t any more). This means that where the soft-opt in applies, you can send people email marketing without their prior consent (it’s a bit more complicated to that, but this isn’t a PECR masterclass – more info here if you’re interested)
However, PECR doesn’t cancel out DPA or contradict it, or over-ride it. You must comply with both. And this means that any company relying on the soft-opt-in to send email marketing via MailChimp is almost certainly in breach of the Data Protection Act unless they at the time they collect your email address have very clearly a) stated that they will use it for email marketing purposes and b) obtained your permission to pass it to MailChimp to use for a whole bunch of other stuff. Ever seen anything like that? Nope, me neither. Fail No. 4
So how come this is so widespread and no-one has sounded the alarm. Well, based on my observations, here are some reasons:
- No-one reads terms and conditions unless they are corporate lawyers. Even if tTs and Cs were read and alarm bells were rung, chances are that the Marketing department or CEO will have a different idea of risk appetite and insist on going ahead with the shiny (but potentially unlawful) option anyway.
- By and large, very few organisations in the UK actually ‘get’ the Data Protection Act and their responsibilities under it. They also don’t really want to pay for DP expertise either, since it will undoubtably open a can of worms that will cost money to fix and cause extra work for everyone. Much easier to take the ostrich approach and rely on the fact that….
- …the vast majority of UK citizens don’t understand or care about data protection either. Sometimes there is a gleam of interest when the word “compensation” pops up, but mostly they see it as a hurdle to be sneaked around rather than a leash on a snarling mongoose. Every now and again there is a spurt of outrage as another major breach is uncovered, but these are so common that “breach fatigue” has set in.
- Data-trading makes money, and ripping off people’s data/spying on them without giving them a choice/share of the cut/chance to behave differently makes more money than acting fairly and ethically.
- Fundamental cultural differences between the US and the EU’s approach to privacy. If you read this blog post by MailChimp’s General Counsel/Chief Privacy Officer, the focus is mostly on data security and disclosure to law enforcement. There’s little about the impact on personal autonomy, freedom of action or principles of fairness that EU privacy law is based on. Perhaps that’s because most of that stuff in in the US Constitution and doesn’t need restating in privacy law. Maybe it’s because the EU has had a different experience of what happens when privacy is eroded. Maybe he ran out of time/steam/coffee before getting into all that.
Anyway, if you got this far, thanks for reading – I hope there’s food for thought there. I’m not advocating that anyone boycott MailChimp or anything like that – but if you’re gonna use them, you should consult a data protection expert to find out how to protect a) your organisation b) your customers and c) the rest of us.
Right, back to web design research it is……