It was bound to happen... Just after I announced I was calling it a day the Daily Fascist runs another junk mail story. The 'paper' has learned that, from early next year, Royal Mail will enable junk mailers to track when their adverts hit your doormat. The idea is that advertisers can then quickly follow up a mail shot with a sales call, text message or e-mail, which they reckon will make it more likely that you part with your money. The Royal Mail calls it
improving the value of business mail through barcode [sic] technology while the Daily Mail insists you will be
swamped with cold calls.
The truth is a little more nuanced. Although Royal Mail hasn't said much about its
major initiative - its press release (dated 12 July 2013!) just endlessly repeats meaningless marketing drivel - it won't be the case that the likes of Virgin Media and Domino's Pizza are going to phone you every time your postie delivers a leaflet. Royal Mail's attempt at tracking is going to be limited to organisations that already got your name, address, telephone number and, ideally, your e-mail address. In other words, you're only going to be affected if you've given all your contact details to potential junk marketeers.
More importantly, you're only going to be affected if you have given the organisation permission to contact you. As the Daily Mail and its 'expert' should have known, the rules around making junk calls and sending junk e-mails are quite strict. They're covered by the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which unambiguously state that companies can't make sales calls or send spam e-mails without your prior permission. (Sadly, there are no such regulations for junk mail; the best we got is the right to ask a sender to stop sending us personally addressed advertisements - see the Guide for details).
My guess is that Royal Mail's new 'service' will be an attractive proposition for companies that want to contact people on their database who are no longer customers. If, for example, you switched to a different electricity supplier a couple of weeks ago after a 10% price hike and now your new supplier is putting up its prices by 12% your old supplier might want you to reconsider. Whether or not this would breach the above-mentioned regulations would depend on whether or not you've given your former supplier permission to contact you with 'offers'. In all likelihood it would be breach; they don't have an automatic right to target you - even if you failed to tick a marketing opt-out box.
Similarly, you may have responded to an appeal from a charity that is helping poor little homeless kittens. You might not have noticed the trick box on the donate form that would prevent the charity from 'sharing' your personal details with third parties - that is, tens of other charities eager to send unsolicited appeals to people who have been identified as softies who are unable to choose their own charities. Yet, such third parties don't have an automatic right to abuse your personal details in this way. The rules around such 'indirect consent' are very strict indeed. If you're registered with the Telephone Preference Service, for instance, 'carefully selected third parties' may not contact you - full stop.
Of course, theory and practice are two different things. The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations are very clear and comprehensive, yet we're getting all these junk calls and text messages about PPI and personal injury claims. It's true that many junk marketeers don't care about any regulations, and it's equally true that the regulator - the Information Commissioner's Office - rarely takes enforcement action. Add that few people know their rights and are willing to take action against junk marketeers and you understand why the Direct Marketing Association is quite pleased with its lobbying / propaganda efforts.
Perhaps, then, there should be a compromise. Junk marketeers may try to track us all they like but they need to play by the rules, and when they target you they need to be able to explain where they got your details from; when and how you gave them permission to contact you; and how you can prevent any further junk marketing attacks.
There... problem solved. And it's just past half two on a Friday night. So much for calling it a day!