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Lewis Silkin – A service electronic mail In your bike says the ICO

That distinction is usually related as a result of service emails will not be topic to e-privacy guidelines on direct advertising and marketing which require companies to rely both on consent or the ‘gentle opt-in’ exemption. As such, service emails are sometimes relied on by marketeers seeking to push the envelope. This financial penalty discover offers helpful insights into the ICO’s software of its present steering on the problem, and technique the place a communication dangers falling on the incorrect aspect of the ICO’s line. 

The marketing campaign

Readers could keep in mind the ‘Repair Your Bike’ voucher scheme which was arrange in 2020 by the then transport secretary throughout these early, socially distant, days of the pandemic. The scheme sought to encourage extra individuals to embrace biking by getting their uncared for velocipedes roadworthy once more. A voucher of as much as £50 might be claimed and used in direction of a motorbike restore with repairers or mechanics that had been registered for the scheme in England. Halfords was one such registrant. 

Coinciding with the federal government’s launch fanfare, on 28 July 2020 Halfords despatched practically 500,000 emails referencing the scheme to prospects who had bought a motorbike from Halfords inside the final 3 years however who had not beforehand opted into advertising and marketing. Recipients had been inspired to ebook a free bike evaluation and redeem the voucher at their chosen Halford’s retailer. The emails didn’t include an unsubscribe hyperlink. They did, nonetheless, embrace a disclaimer within the following phrases: “This can be a service message and doesn’t have an effect on your advertising and marketing opt-in standing”.

The investigation 

Given the disclaimer, the ICO sought to make clear with Halfords why it thought-about the e-mail to be a service message moderately than direct advertising and marketing. Reasonably than handle that question, Halfords apparently focussed as a substitute on its lawful foundation below the UK GDPR for sending the e-mail – ‘legit curiosity’. 

This was, nonetheless, irrelevant provided that to ship e-marketing r.22 of the Privateness and Digital Communications Laws (PECR) requires organisations both to acquire a sound consent or to avail of the ‘gentle opt-in’ exemption. That’s the reason the battle line was being drawn round whether or not the e-mail was a service message or advertising and marketing – if the previous, then Halfords wouldn’t have to depend on consent or the gentle opt-in. (For extra info, see our earlier article “Blurred traces: The distinction between a service communication and advertising and marketing communication”). 

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Pressed on why it thought-about the e-mail to be a service electronic mail, Halfords’ justification was that it sought to tell prospects who had beforehand bought a motorbike from Halfords of the brand new authorities voucher scheme, moderately than to advertise its services. Sadly for Halfords, nonetheless, it went on to acknowledge that: “However, we respect that this might be interpreted by prospects as a Advertising communication.” This concession later got here again to chunk. 

In addition to claiming that the aim of the message was to advertise the federal government initiative, different elements relied on by Halfords in help of its place had been that the e-mail contained no hyperlinks to Halfords’ companies, gross sales or provides – solely hyperlinks to the phrases and situations of voucher utilization; and that message associated to the way to receive and redeem the voucher.

The choice

The ICO disagreed. It famous Halfords’ U-turn from an preliminary concession that the e-mail might be interpreted by prospects as a advertising and marketing communication, to a subsequent categoric denial of the identical. 

The ICO discovered that the e-mail was direct advertising and marketing based mostly on the next: 

1. The usage of phrases resembling “Halfords”, “Free £50” and “Repair Your Bike” in Halfords’ model colors implied a reference to the federal government and emphasised Halfords’ service. 

2. The decision to motion inspired recipients to “go to to search out out extra now”. Not solely did this signpost Halfords’ web site however it additionally instilled a way of urgency which the ICO characterised as “a typical advertising and marketing technique”. 

3. No point out was manufactured from the truth that the voucher might be used at any store registered with the scheme, not simply Halfords. 

4. While people might need been suggested of the supply of the scheme, the truth that the emails contained even some promotional materials was ample to represent direct advertising and marketing.  

5. While info was offered concerning the scheme, info was additionally offered which promoted Halfords and its companies, steering recipients in direction of its web site.

6. The voucher could not have lined the entire price of any bike repairs.

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Because the emails had been deemed direct advertising and marketing, ‘legit curiosity’ was not a substitute for acquiring the consent required by e-privacy regulation. The gentle opt-in exemption couldn’t apply both provided that the focused recipients had already opted out of promoting and, in any occasion, weren’t supplied with a easy technique of opting out within the electronic mail itself (e.g. by way of an unsubscribe hyperlink) – a requirement of r.22(3)(c) of PECR.  


The ICO is obvious that sending service emails to people who’ve already communicated that they don’t need to obtain e-marketing – resembling was the case right here – is a dangerous exercise. In these circumstances, the ICO expects the sender to hunt unbiased authorized recommendation, or recommendation from his Workplace, earlier than partaking the marketing campaign; and most undoubtedly to think about the obtainable steering.

Some further ideas:  

1. With regards to direct advertising and marketing, regulatory motion is often prompted by a single criticism. That was actually the case right here (although as soon as the Commissioner began digging, he unearthed 2 additional complaints on his methods associated to the identical marketing campaign). 

2. Even when advertising and marketing shouldn’t be the primary function, the definition of direct advertising and marketing consists of any message which features a advertising and marketing factor. This isn’t solely clear from the ICO’s present direct advertising and marketing steering, however has additionally been reiterated in varied choice notices resembling its £100,000 tremendous in opposition to EE  and £90,000 tremendous in opposition to American Specific. 

3. Get your story straight from the get-go. In case you are unsure whether or not you might be on the suitable aspect of the service / advertising and marketing line, then be sure you have a defensible narrative – ideally earlier than you press ship. If that isn’t attainable, then on the very least seek the advice of your specialist knowledge and privateness legal professionals with actual world expertise within the promoting and advertising and marketing sector earlier than you reply to the ICO, to keep away from having to alter tack through the course of an investigation. 

4. Tied with that is ensuring that you’ve got pre-empted the kinds of governance questions you might be prone to be requested by the ICO when investigating, together with having insurance policies and procedures in place relating to obligations below e-privacy (i.e. not knowledge safety) legal guidelines. 

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5. Be aware of your non-privileged inside communications on these points. The ICO requested to see the DPO’s recommendation and was knowledgeable that discussions had been carried out by way of MST chat and due to this fact inaccessible (presumably attributable to a brief retention coverage). An electronic mail from the then DPO was, nonetheless, found which suggested that the emails ought to include a hyperlink to the Authorities web site, “in order that [Halfords] can’t be accused of linking to a advertising and marketing website” (sic). This was utilized by the ICO in opposition to Halfords to display that the enterprise was clearly conscious of the dangers of contravening e-privacy regulation by attempting to border its emails in such a manner as to keep away from them showing as direct advertising and marketing. 

6. Sure, you possibly can seek the advice of beforehand with the ICO. However be aware that there’s additionally generally knowledge in asking for forgiveness, not permission. Had the ICO been consulted after which ignored, the hammer would probably have come down a lot tougher. As it’s, regardless of this tremendous (which is diminished to £24,000 if paid promptly), Halfords not solely availed of the extra publicity from the e-mail, however can be prone to have benefitted financially even after paying the tremendous (and authorized charges provided that the U-turn presumably marked Halfords’ instruction of exterior counsel). In any case, Halfords knowledgeable the ICO that over 3,700 recipients claimed the £50 voucher. On our calculations, that’s £185,000. That sum doesn’t, nonetheless, mirror the precise price of the repairs, that are prone to have been larger than the worth of the vouchers; or the equipment seemingly additionally to have been bought in-store by prospects. This wholesome contribution to Halford’s backside line was maybe definitely worth the threat. 
7. While e-privacy fines are presently capped at £500,000, proposals within the Knowledge Safety and Digital Data Invoice look to convey them in step with the UK GDPR. It will seemingly have an effect on the chance/reward ratio if direct advertising and marketing emails are discovered to have been dressed up as service messages.


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