Saturday 24 March 2018

Court strikes out email blunder cases after payments to charity

The Irish Times and Littlewoods Ireland avoided criminal convictions for breaking e-privacy regulations by sending customers unsolicited emails
The Irish Times and Littlewoods Ireland avoided criminal convictions for breaking e-privacy regulations by sending customers unsolicited emails

Tom Tuite

THE IRISH Times and Littlewoods Ireland have avoided court convictions for breaking e-privacy regulations by sending customers unsolicited emails.

Following separate investigations by the office of the Data Protection Commissioner they had pleaded guilty to the offences at Dublin District Court in April.

Today Judge William Hamill noted they complied with orders made on the last date for The Irish Times Ltd to give €3,000 to suicide prevention charity Pieta House while Littlewoods had donate €5,000 to the same cause. After being furnished with the receipts, he struck out the cases.

At the original hearing last month, Tony Delaney, Assistant Data Protection Commissioner, told the court the important message for companies involved in electronic marketing is that there has to be “robust testing of technology behind their databases”.

The offence, which is under the European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services) (Privacy and Electronic Communications) Regulations 2011, can result in a criminal conviction and a fine of up to €5,000 per incident.

Mr Delaney had told the court that a woman, who had an account with online retailer Littlewoods, had opted out of receiving their marketing emails. However she continued to get more of them and in 2014 the data protection watchdog gave them a warning, after which they agreed to donate €2,500.

The emails resumed last year when two more were received by the woman. One of them was a marketing email headed “show how super your mother is” offering a Mother's Day bargain.

She had been inadvertently opted back in to receive marketing messages. As a consequence she received more emails after she thought the problem had been resolved. It also caused “a credibility issue” for the office of the Data Protection Commissioner, Mr Delaney had said.

Littlewoods' counsel, Shelley Horan BL, said it was an accident and the company co-operated with the investigation and also entered a guilty plea at the first opportunity. Counsel said Littlewoods addressed the issue and agreed to pay €1,078 prosecution costs.

She had said there was a human error and the offence was committed unwittingly. The customer has kept her account with the retailer which has spent significant time and effort to address the issue, counsel said.

In relation to The Irish Times Ltd, the Assistant Data Protection Commissioner had told the court a man subscribed to the “Get Swimming” weekly newsletter but after three or four issues he opted out last year and received a confirmation email. But he received the next issue and then made several further attempts to unsubscribe.

After a number of weeks still receiving the newsletter he contacted their customer care team. Later he received an email with a promotional offer and another newsletter..

Mr Delaney said the man found it distressing and 64 other users were also affected but the fault had been corrected.

Defence counsel Eoghan Cole had said The Irish Times was disappointed to find itself before the court and accepted it had fallen short of the required standard. He also asked the court to note that costs would be paid and had they had co-operated fully. Steps were taken to remedy the problem which was caused by human error, counsel had said.

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