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Voters for sale

It must be hard to be the Direct Marketing Association. All individuals in the DMA must know that they themselves hate getting marketing calls during dinner, weeding the real post out from the junk mail, and constantly having to unsubscribe from email lists that they're only on because they had the misfortune to buy something from the sender. Collectively, the DMA remains firmly convinced that people want advertising really, it just has to be targeted right (at which point people no longer call it advertising). It must be very hard for everyone involved to maintain this level of cognitive dissonance.

And it leads them to do things as an organization that probably each individual would oppose if they were working for someone else. Today the DMA is opposing the withdrawal of the edited electoral register, a recommendation appearing in the Data-Sharing Review, published by the Ministry of Justice and written by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport. There's a lot of interesting stuff to digest; the electoral register issue is one of the simpler bits.

To recap: historically the UK, like the US, treated the electoral rolls as public information. In the UK every household gets sent a canvassing form once a year that comes with a stern warning that you are legally required to register.

Starting in the 1830s, the British electoral rolls have been available for public inspection and sale; what a godsend for direct marketers as their industry grew up. As of 2001, electoral registration officers are required to sell a copy of the register at a specified price to anyone who wants it under Regulation 48 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations. Almost immediately there were objections on privacy grounds, most notably a complaint by Pontefract-based Brian Robertson, a retired accountant, against Wakefield City Council because there was no provision for him to prevent the sale of his information for commercial use. He refused to register, took them to court - and won.

The regulations were promptly amended to require councils to maintain two registers: the full public register and an edited version that could be sold to commercial organizations and others and to which voters would be added automatically - but with the right to opt out. The first edited registers appeared in 2002.

And there was a lot of confusion. The canvassing forms that first year didn't make it very clear what the edited register was, and it was easy to make the mistake of thinking that if you opted out you would not be able to vote. Subsequent years saw amended forms that made it more clear just what you were opting out of. And the results really shouldn't surprise anyone: in the latest rolls 40 percent of voters opted out, double the percentage in the first years. Given that, it's not entirely clear why the government needs to withdraw the register. If they just wait a few more years everyone of any value to marketers will have opted out, and the edited rolls will become useful again as a list of all the people who aren't worth marketing to. Anyone left presumably either didn't understand the form, so lonely they enjoy the attention, or so mentally afflicted that someone else filled out the form for them.

The full register is available - at least in theory - only to a select group of people and organizations: political parties for electoral purposes, credit reference agencies to check names and addresses when people apply for credit, and law enforcement. The main purchasers of the edited register, the Thomas-Walport report notes, are direct marketing companies and companies compiling directories.

Thomas and Walport disapprove of its existence on these grounds: "It sends a particularly poor message to the public that personal information collected for something as vital as participation in the democratic process can be sold to 'anyone for any purpose'."

A key data protection principle is that a chance of use in personal information requires the consent of the individual. If ever there were a more significant change of use than selling information collected to enable people to vote to third party companies for general marketing purposes, I don't know what it would be.

The DMA's objection to its withdrawal is that its members won't be able to clean their lists and keep them accurate and up-to-date. And it happily sees the direct mail envelope as more than half full: "Some householders have opted out, but around 60 petrcent have chosen to remain on the edited register." They don't believe the forms are all confusing. And the DMA plays the environmental card: targeting reduces the amount of waste paper the industry produces.

One issue neither group tackles is whether the register represents a significant source of income for councils. How much are we willing to pay for privacy. This warrants more research; a quick glance turns up figures from Bath and North East Somerset Counil. In 2005-2006, the council netted £1,553 and £380.50 for the sales of the full and edited registers respectively; in 2006-2007 those figures were £1558.50 and £681. If that's indicative of national trends, we can afford it, especially given the savings on administering the opt-out process.

"The edited register does serve a purpose," the DMA concludes, "and so should not be abolished." A purpose, yes. Just not our purpose.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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