Maybe it’s a coincidence, but isn’t it odd that the UK’s Information Commissioner Office (ICO) has chosen this date — U.S. Election Day — to release its report, “Investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns,” to Parliament and the public?
The paper mostly seems to cover a series of actions by the ICO against wayward emailers and describes a environment that must seem alien to a U.S. fundraiser. But it perceives a threat to democracy.
Case in point: The ICO’s action against Leave.EU, an anti-Brexit group. That entity utilized email addresses and other data from Eldon Insurance, which markets itself as GoSkippy, to “unlawfully send political marketing messages,” the report states. The ICO has notified Leave.eu and Eldon that it plans to fine them £60,000 apiece.
Unlawful? A threat to democracy? Here in the USA, political emails are protected speech and lists are freely available, although government lists may not be used for campaigning. The Trump campaign is renting its list out, and so is Liberty University, the religious college.
Drill down a little, however, and Leave.EU’s offense might not seem so strange to American eyes: “As part of its campaign work, Leave.EU built up a database of subscribers who had consented to receive email information from Leave.EU,” it writes. ”However, during two separate campaigns, Leave.EU sent emails to their subscribers which contained other marketing information, promoting GoSkippy and its insurance products, for which they did not have consent.”
To be specific, the group sent over 1 million emails from February through July last year, featuring the GoSkippy banner and a discount offer for Leave.EU supporters. One email that went to 49,000 people announced the “sponsorship” deal.
Aw, come on, guys -- if the UK is leaving the EU, what’s wrong with GoSkippy drumming up a little business at home?
Leave.EU has dirty hands in one other way: It allegedly used the data services of the disgraced Cambridge Analytica. And Facebook has received the “maximum monetary penalty” of £500,000 for its “lack of transparency and security issues.
Facebook isn’t the only North American company to be snared in this web: As MediaPost has reported, the ICO has ordered AggregateIQ, a Canadian company, to stop processing retained UK citizen data.
And Eldon’s part of it? “We are considering the apparent weakness of controls in Eldon allowing its customer information to be accessed by Leave.EU staff in this way on different occasions,” the report states.
Most of the whining about campaign emails in the U.S. concerns over-the-top language and accusations by both sides. Far from being a threat to democracy, many say this is democracy.
Vendors, be warned if you’re thinking of selling data to UK political campaigns.