The Data Protection Commissioner has written to political parties to caution them about communicating with individuals using text, email or phone in the forthcoming election.
The Commissioner said that his office had received numerous complaints during previous election campaigns.
He said subsequent investigations revealed that contact details were obtained from sources such as sports clubs, friends, colleagues and schools.
Obtaining personal data in such circumstances constitutes a breach of the Data Protection Acts.
I rang the Data Protection Commissioner to find out how many politicians or political parties had been prosecuted as a result of these investigations.
Before ringing I made a mad guess that the answer would be zero and indeed that mad guess turned out to be, well, not so mad.
Here’s some of what I was told by a spokesperson.
If a company sends an email or text to a citizen without permission they can be immediately prosecuted, the law is crystal clear on the matter.
However, there is a special exemption written into the law for politicians and political parties.
In other words these people and organisations have full rights to bombard citizens with any amount of unsolicited material at any time of day or night.
Now we have to stop here and consider this special exemption.
Who made this decision? Was it a politician, a civil servant – or both? Why should politicians enjoy this special exemption?
Is it just another of those occasions where the law and state institutions are utilised (abused?) to provide politicians with an advantage at the expense of citizens?
But there’s good news.
Apparently politicians/political parties can be fined up to €3,000 (about five days expenses for the average TD?) if they illegally obtain contact details of citizens through such sources as sports clubs, friends, colleagues and schools.
In his warning the Commissioner revealed that he had indeed received and investigated numerous such complaints after recent elections so I put the obvious question to the Commissioner’s spokesperson.
Has your office ever taken action against a politician or political party for breaching the Data Protection Act?
No, it hasn’t arisen. You see our first action is never to serve an enforcement order in any of the complaints we deal with.
(Translation: Our first action is never to enforce the law?).
You’re confirming that you’ve never served an enforcement order against a politician or political party.
We investigated complaints in the local government and general elections but it hasn’t been necessary to actually serve an enforcement order because in each case, when we found out, they agreed to delete the details.
This is similar to the strategy adopted by the Financial Regulator when banks were found to be robbing their customers – just pay back the money and promise to be good in future.
This method of dealing with alleged law breakers is one of the principal reasons why our country is now facing total ruination.
The (Tammany Hall) system can be outlined as follows.
An activity is taking place that is damaging to the general public.
Laws are introduced and an organisation is set up to enforce those laws to protect the general public and the good of society.
If it is found that the laws are ‘inconvenient’ for some vested interests (politicians, bankers, property developers, solicitors etc.) a number of options can be considered.
Write an exemption into the law. This is usually buried deep within the legislation.
Ensure that the enforcement agency is provided with only minimum powers and is so understaffed and under funded that it will be impossible to carry out its remit.
The ODCE, presently investigating Anglo Irish Bank, is a good example of this kind of strategy.
Equip the so called regulator with Soviet style secrecy laws which debars any questions whatsoever. The Financial Regulator is a good example of this strategy.
Allow civil servants wide discretion regarding the implementation of the law. This particular case is a good example of this strategy.
The Data Protection Commissioner could have taken action against politicians/political parties for breach of the Act but chose instead to come to a mutual agreement
Ignore the law altogether. This is a very common strategy in Ireland. Ansbacher and DIRT are just two examples where so called regulatory agencies were aware of serious breaches of the law but failed to take action.
The failure to rigorously enforce laws by a wide range of state agencies over a prolonged number of years has led to the inevitable – political chaos, impoverishment and hardship for ordinary citizens and national shame in front of the world community.
Allow me to end by making another (mad) guess/prediction – not a single politician or political party will receive an enforcement order from the so called Data Protection Commissioner as a result of any breaches of the Act in the forthcoming election.
The Data Protection Commissioner