You – yes, you! – are entitled to FREE compensation! Our records – what records? Magic records! – show that you were missold PPI and can now claim thousands of pounds!
If you haven’t ever had a text message or a phone call along these lines, then you are either managing to live as a hermit or you are extraordinarily lucky. Most of us face spam texts and nuisance cold-calls as a daily fact of life. They are a regular source of irritation and annoyance. They are also blatantly illegal, particularly if you have signed up to the Telephone Preference Service. See: regs 22-23 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (SI 2003/2426) (“PECR”), implemented under EU Directive 2002/21/EC.
Unfortunately, the nature of such communications means that it will not be very often that they are a source of “substantial damage or substantial distress”. Yet, that is the test which must be met in order for the Information Commisisoner to impose a monetary penalty notice (“MPN”): section 55A(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (implemented as the enforcement regime for PECR as well in a fit of slightly lazy ‘joined-up’ thinking).
As readers of this blog will know, the Upper Tribunal’s interpretation of the MPN regime as applied to PECR in Information Commissioner v Niebel  UKUT 255 (AAC) has had the effect that it will be almost impossible for the ICO to establish substantial damage or distress in spam text message cases (see Anya Proops’ detailed comment here). It is certainly the case that the door remains more ajar in relation to nuisance calls – which by their nature are much more likely to cause genuine distress to some individuals – and the ICO is dealing with a couple of MPN appeals to establish how ajar, but Niebel casts a baleful shadow.
But, to the east, a new dawn may be rising. If the ICO’s war against the orc-like forces of spam is reminscient of the Battle of Helms Deep (and I think we can all agree that it is), then the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid, is Gandalf, appearing with the remains of the Rohirrim on the morning of fifth day to turn the tide. For the DCMS has just launched a consultation exercise on amending PECR with a view to altering the test from “substantial damage or distress” to causing “annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”. On its face, that change will be much more easily met and give PECR some teeth, as well as better implementing the Directive, which did not require anything so high as the section 55A test. The consultation paper can be found here, and the period for responding closes on December 7th. So once you have had fun allocating characters to the players in this area (Is Ed Vaizey Peregrine Took? Is Christopher Graham, the ICO, Aragorn? Is our own Robin Hopkins, counsel for Mr ‘Spamalot’ Niebel, Grima Wormtongue?), do respond to the consultation.
Few areas of the law have such informed and coherent bloggers as information and data protection law, and not surprisingly, the PECR consultation has been grist to the commentariat mill. But at least one leading blogger, Jon Baines, has made the point that the Government’s (and the ICO’s) preferred option from the consultation is actually to remove the threshold entirely. He is right (and however formidable I may be – thanks Jon – I should have made that point). That is what the consultation paper says under option 3 (removing any harm threshold at all). Although it is also fair to say that it is slightly surprising that that is the preferred option, as the rest of the consultation paper appears to be drafted around the utility of adopting the “annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety” threshold. Not only is that what the Government says on the consultation page of its website, but paragraphs 16-20 of the paper (under the heading ‘The Proposal’) talk expressing in terms of the ‘annoyance’ threshold (and cross-refer to that being the test used by Ofcom). At paragraphs 44-45 of the paper the ICO appears to have provided evidence on the different actions it could have taken under an ‘annoyance’ test. Nowhere until the options are presented is it suggested that the talk of “lowering the threshold” might mean removing the threshold altogether. Which might just be an oversight. Or it might indicate that consulting on a preferred no harm option is one of those kite-flying efforts Sir Stephen Sedley warned of in the LRB. Either way, the reader is left less than clear as to what DCMS or the ICO really want.
(Apologies for the lack of LOTR references in this update. To make up for it, do enjoy this video of Ian McKellen explaining to schoolkids why they should revise for their exams. You’re welcome.)