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When political market research crosses the line

Blog posted by: Steve Eckersley, Head of Enforcement, 23 October 2017.

When political market research crosses the lineThe ICO has concluded its investigation into a Conservative Party telephone campaign carried out in the run up to the 2017 general election.

An undercover Channel 4 News investigation raised concerns about the campaign involving calls made by Blue Telecoms, a firm in Neath, South Wales, on behalf of the Conservative Party.

These concerns prompted an ICO investigation into the campaign’s compliance with data protection and electronic marketing law.

We’ve found that two small sections of the written scripts used by those making the calls crossed the line from legitimate market research to unlawful direct marketing. We’ve warned the Conservative Party to get it right next time.

Direct marketing v market research in politics

Market research helps political parties inform their views and formulate policies. Questions about voting intentions, finding out which Prime Minister someone might prefer or generally encouraging people to go out and vote are all legitimate market research.

However, if the questions are framed in a way to gain support – either now or at some point in the future – then that crosses the line into direct marketing. We mean things like promoting the aims and ideals of a particular party, appealing for funds, or encouraging people to vote for a particular party or candidate.

The law protects people from this kind of marketing because it can be intrusive.

Direct marketing – whether it’s through emails, texts or phone calls – is regulated by the ICO under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR). Other matters, for example around election law and market research, are regulated by other bodies.

What did the Conservative Party do wrong?

As part of our investigation, we studied scripts and call recordings and were satisfied that, in general, the questions reflected a valid market research campaign.

But we did have concerns about two sections which we believe fell outside the bounds of market research. These paragraphs referenced both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in relation to policy choices.

What happens now?

We’ve stopped short of formal regulatory action because the overall campaign was genuine market research. The two sections we had concerns about were not enough to trigger formal enforcement action when considered along with the campaign as a whole. In addition, the results of the survey were not saved against any individual so they could not be targeted for future marketing.

But we have been clear about what we expect in the future.

We’ve warned the party that its campaigns must be rigorously checked for questions that fall outside the bounds of market research.

And, while we did not resort to the full force of our regulatory powers in this case, we will continue to keep an eye on all political parties in the run up to future elections and repeat our advice to them that they must comply with data protection and privacy laws when campaigning.

There’s more advice about the difference between market research and direct marketing in our political campaigning guidance.

Steve Eckersley leads the ICO’s Enforcement Team. Its aim is to take purposeful risk-based regulatory action where obligations are ignored, examples need to be set or issues need to be clarified, based on the ICO’s Regulatory Action Policy.


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