ICO warns Scottish referendum campaigners after marketing gaffe

Campaigners sent out thousands of text messages without gaining consent

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has warned Scottish referendum campaign groups that they must comply with electronic marketing rules on the run up to next year's referendum vote on 18 September 2014.

The ICO's warning comes after anti-independence campaign group Better Together signed an undertaking with the ICO after wrongly sending 300,000 text messages to individuals, without checking first as to whether they had given their consent to be contacted.

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) that cover electronic marketing - including text messages, calls and emails - require organisations to have a person's consent before sending them marketing messages.

ICO assistant commissioner for Scotland, Ken Macdonald, said: "The Scottish referendum is an important issue and we understand why both sides of the debate want to communicate with potential voters. But it is absolutely crucial that they continue to do so in a manner that respects the rules that exist to protect consumers."

He said: "If people consider the messages or calls they are receiving to be causing them a nuisance, there is a real danger that they will not only lose faith with the group who sent the message, but will lose interest in the entire process.

"There's no room to get this wrong and we hope the action taken against Better Together sends out a warning that campaigners involved in the referendum debate must not unlawfully pester and annoy people with unwanted text messages."

Better Together sent 300,000 messages to individuals in Scotland urging them to complete a survey confirming how they intended to vote. The messages were sent out by a third party marketing company on 22 March 2013 and 27 April 2013.

On both occasions, the campaign group failed to check whether the recipients had provided their consent to be contacted, believing that the consent had been obtained by another company working on their behalf. The ICO received 61 complaints about the text messages prompting its investigation.

The second round of text messages were sent out despite Better Together and Yes Scotland receiving a letter from the ICO in early April 2013 warning them about the need to comply with the law. The ICO says it has produced detailed guidance for campaign groups explaining their requirements under data protection and electronic marketing rules.

The ICO regulates the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 throughout the UK.

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