SNP's automated calls breached privacy laws

Spam laws apply to political parties when they canvass support by telephone, according to a ruling against the Scottish National Party by the Information Tribunal. It followed complaints about automated phone calls that used the voice of Sir Sean Connery.

The ruling dismissed the SNP's appeal against an earlier ruling by the Information Commissioner. It focused on the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.

Although best known for putting restrictions on email spam, these Regulations apply similar principles to forbid unsolicited marketing calls to numbers registered on the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). They also forbid the making of wholly automated unsolicited marketing calls to any subscriber who has not consented.

Leading up to the 2005 General Election the SNP made a substantial number of automated calls to Scottish households. A recorded message from Sir Sean Connery urged voters to support the SNP: "If Scotland matters to you, then make it matter in Westminster. Vote for the SNP and get Scotland’s voice heard in London. I thank you for listening."

Calls were made to voters who had not given their consent. Though the SNP did try to avoid making calls to numbers registered on the TPS, a few voters received calls despite being registered with the TPS.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) had, since rules on unsolicited marketing were first introduced in 1998, consistently made clear that it considered the promotion of a political party as marketing and had contacted political parties to advise them of this on several occasions. The SNP disagreed.

As the SNP continued to make automated calls, and disputed that such calls were subject to the Regulations, the ICO initiated formal enforcement action. This culminated in the serving of an Enforcement Notice. The SNP subsequently appealed the notice.

The appeal failed. The Information Tribunal wrote: "We find that the 2003 Regulations do apply to political parties and their campaigning activities and that the automated calls made by the SNP were in contravention … because the SNP did not obtain the consent of data subjects to the use of an automated calling system before making those calls."

Phil Jones, Assistant Commissioner at the ICO, welcomed the ruling.

"I acknowledge that the SNP tried to avoid making calls to numbers registered on the TPS," he said. "However, if their view that promotional calls by political parties are not direct marketing calls had been upheld then neither they, nor any other political party, would have to take account of the rules on unsolicited marketing."

Political parties can legitimately make unsolicited live voice marketing calls to any number not registered on TPS, unless the subscriber has advised them directly that they do not want such calls.