You might not think it's spam, the law may think otherwise

26 August 2007

Tom Coates doesn't like getting press releases. I can't blame him. Reading plasticbag.org you get the feeling that he isn't suddenly going to put a link in for GlobalCorp the world leader in global corping and it's latest corping solution.

PRs have for the most part taken a step back and thought "you know, sending press releases to people who don't want them isn't a great idea". But, for Drew Benvie, there was that niggling little point: "Maybe bloggers need to realise that if they publish and they have an audience, they are vehicles conveying messages, and companies will always look to sign them up. A lot of the time the wrong way, but they will try".

Coates looks at it a bit differently: "They're no better than spammers".

Actually, they are spammers. It all happened pretty quietly, but UK wrote into law an EU directive meant to curb spam in 2003. It did nothing of the sort but, for people like Coates, it almost certainly does put the releases he is receiving into the spam category. If agencies are sending him press releases without asking first and without an opt-out clause (I can only think of one company that puts an opt-out link on an email release), that's unsolicited commercial email and could, if they keep doing it, attract a fine up to £5000. Frankly, I'd love to stick that one on Zebra Computers, but they've been using a business email address for me.

Here's the relevant bit:

(1) This regulation applies to the transmission of unsolicited communications by means of electronic mail to individual subscribers.

(2) Except in the circumstances referred to in paragraph (3), a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the sender.

As far I can tell, he is blogging in his personal capacity. A lawyer might want to argue that Plasticbag is a business but without ads on it and the blog being a personal view on the world, it would have to be a good lawyer.

PRs are unlikely to have encountered this legal nugget before because journalists would almost certainly be treated by the law as 'legal persons' - operating in a business rather than in a personal capacity. Also, releases are something of an occupational hazard. Most are junk, but sod's law rules. So, the day you ask to get taken off a list is the day before that company discovers the true recipe for cold fusion. But sending unwanted releases to personal bloggers is spam - nothing more, nothing less - whether PRs like it or not.

Stuart Bruce noted that Plasticbag is in media databases. The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 is that it provides stronger rights for individuals to decide if they wish to be listed in subscriber directories. However, I'm not clear yet on whether this part of the Act extends to things like media databases. However, if I were Cision and the like, I'd be taking a look at whether they should find out from bloggers whether they want to be listed and maybe move the blogs for those that don't to a section that says: "don't send releases to these people" with no other contact information than the blog's URL.

However, bloggers could come off the high horse once in a while when it comes to PR. People get sold to all the time; the ones that get called out tend to be at the more stupid end of the spectrum. The trouble is that the holier-than-thou attitude interspersed with falling for a bit of flattery gets a bit tedious after a while. Speaking of which, the ugliest part of this episode is that it made me feel that Stowe Boyd might have a point. I don't like that feeling and I'd like it to stop.