Yellow Pages publishers in the States are not yet ready to accept that there's a demand for a robust opt-out scheme for unsolicited directories. They've filed an appeal against Monday's ruling by a federal judge that there's nothing unconstitutional about opt-out schemes for Yellow Pages directories, the Seattle Times reports. With interesting comments!
October last year Seattle City Council passed Ordinance 123427, better known as the Yellow Pages Ordinance. It took a while to implement the law, but Seattleites now have a proper opt-out scheme for the six(!) Yellow Pages directories published in the city. Any of these books can be cancelled via Catalog Choice - an already existing opt-out service for getting rid of unwanted catalogues.
An interesting aspect of the Ordinance is that it requires publishers distributing more than four tonnes worth of directories to get a distribution licence from the City of Seattle. This allows the scheme to be enforced; publishers ignoring opt-out requests may face fines or even loose their licence. And, it means the polluter pays; the income generated by the licence scheme will pay for administering the opt-out scheme and disposing of directories. No longer do have tax payers have to foot the bill for recycling tonnes of unwanted directories.
A perfectly normal state of affairs, if you ask me. Yet, being the first city in the United States to introduce an opt-out scheme for paper directories Seattle faced fierce opposition from the Yellow Pages lobby. Shortly after the city passed the Ordinance the Local Search Association - previously known as the Yellow Pages Association - filed a law suit to get an injunction from the federal court. The industry lobby group felt the opt-out scheme in general, and the requirement to obtain a distribution licence in particular, violated publishers' right to free speech. And, the industry argued, Seattle's scheme was unnecessary because the industry was about to launch a nationwide opt-out scheme.
Seattle was not impressed. The opt-out service the industry launches in February, Yellow Pages Opt-Out, is only voluntary, Councillor O'Brien told the Seattle Times last week. "Ours is mandatory", he added, "and we enforce it." Music to my ears, and hopefully the Data Publishers Association in the UK will take note. On this side of the Big Pond opting out of receiving the Yellow Pages, Thomson Local and/or BT Phone Book is still largely ineffective. More often than not opt out requests are simply ignored by the industry. The example of Seattle shows this may well backfire. The Data Publishers Association has nothing to show for when it comes to respecting people's wishes…
As for that bizarre 'freedom of speech' argument ('bizarre' from a European perspective), the verdict on the law suit was delivered on Monday, and the court dismissed the argument in no uncertain terms. "Common sense […] dictates that the Yellow Pages directories should not receive the highest level of protection afforded by the First Amendment", the judge ruled. And after rejecting the industry's main argument he went on to criticise the industry's failure to reduce waste and respect people's right to privacy:
"Here, any First Amendment impact on the public, to the extent there is such an impact at all, would be limited because the Ordinance will not prevent delivery to any City residents who wish to receive yellow pages directories. Further, the Ordinance was enacted in large measure after considerable public testimony that plaintiffs' opt-out system was ineffective and that unwanted deliveries by plaintiffs violated City residents' right to privacy and generated large amounts of waste."
Hopefully, more cities in the States will follow Seattle's lead. Seattle wisely set up the scheme in co-operation with Catalog Choice; not only is there a blueprint for other cities; the infrastructure has also already been set up.
As for the UK, I think it's unavoidable that the directory industry will be forced to respect people's wishes not to receive unsolicited books. The only question is whether we will have a central opt-out or opt-in scheme.
The Express has discovered that councils are selling an edited version of the electoral roll to anyone prepared to pay a small fee. According to the paper you can buy 1,000 names and addresses for just £21.50.
Not a particularly newsworthy fact. Councils have been legally obliged to sell the Edited Electoral Register to all and sundry ever since the Representation of the People (England and Wales)(Amendment) Regulations 2002 became law nine years ago. Here's what the Regulations say:
Sale of edited register - 110
- The registration officer shall supply a copy of the edited register to any person on payment of a fee calculated in accordance with paragraph (2) below.
- In the case of the register—
- in data form, the fee shall be at the rate of £20 plus £1.50 for each 1,000 entries (or remaining part of 1,000 entries) in it; and
- in printed form, the fee shall be at the rate of £10 plus £5 for each 1,000 entries (or remaining part of 1,000 entries) in it.
What the Express article doesn't mention is that the government was due to respond to a public consolation on the future of the Edited Electoral Register by 18 May 2010. The consultation was announced after the Information Commissioner had concluded in July 2008 that "selling the Edited Register is an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat person information." It seems the issue has effectively been kicked in the long grass. The Express, at least, appears to be oblivious of the fact that the future of the Edited Electoral Register is on the political agenda (albeit as one of the last agenda points).
Just how relevant the issue is was illustrated by a story that appeared on Wales on Sunday last week. The details of a six-year-old were mistakenly added to the Electoral Register, and as a result the kid is now receiving credit card and loan offers from junk mailers. There's nothing the council that sold the child's name and address can do to rectify its mistake. The data on the register may be used for any purpose; once it's in the public domain it will quickly find its way to countless anonymous list brokers. The father of the child told the paper:
"You hand this information to a trusted body who you expect to keep your details safe or at least make you aware that they are not going to do that. If I had known what would have happened before registering to vote, I think I would have sacrificed my vote and stayed off the register."
Another example. Last month I was contacted by someone who has ticked the opt-out box on the electoral registration form ever since the Edited Register was introduced in 2002. Despite this the person was suddenly listed on people-finding websites (192.com and the like). It turned out this had happened because an election officer had failed to mark the person as 'opted out' on the Electoral Register. So, for nearly ten years you tick that stupid opt-out box to prevent your personal details are used as a commodity, only to find that some bureaucrat has made a slight clerical error.
Much more newsworthy, if you ask me.
Just when you think you know everything there is to know about stopping junk mail you get a question that opens an unprecedented can of junk mail worms:
"We have registered with the two opt-out schemes for unaddressed mail and have a no junk mail sign on the door. Two political parties have put stuff through our door and when confronted, the candidates have claimed that they are exempt due to 'national importance'. Could you please confirm if this is the case and if so, is there any way to make them stop putting election flyers through the door?"
The claim that political leaflets have 'national importance' is pompous and false. Here's how the three opt-out regimes for unaddressed mail items treat political leaflets:
Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out is rather vague about political leaflets. On its website, Royal Mail states that election material is not delivered via the company's the door-to-door scheme and that it's therefore not affected by the opt-out scheme. However, when I recently checked if a booklet from the Electoral Commission about today's local elections and the referendum on our voting system was also being delivered to households registered with the Door-to-Door Opt-Out I was told that it was not. Although the booklet was clearly "election material" it was affected by the opt-out…
As far as I'm aware the only type of "election material" that can't be stopped by the Door-to-Door Opt-Out are so-called 'election communications'. At a general election all candidates are entitled to have one political leaflet distributed free of charge by the Royal Mail, and this leaflet is delivered to each and every household in the candidate's constituency, including households that are registered with the company's Door-to-Door Opt-Out. Any other political leaflets distributed by Royal Mail are probably not exempt.
The Your Choice Preference Scheme for Unaddressed Mail stops all political leaflets distributed by companies that are a member of the Direct Marketing Association. Straightforward as that may be, the Your Choice scheme is hopelessly complicated in other ways. One of the problems with Your Choice is that you usually have no way of knowing whether or not a particular leaflet was distributed by a member of the Direct Marketing Association. And even if you're confident that a leaflet was pushed through the door by a representative of a political party and that the political party is a member of the Direct Marketing Association, you'll probably find you can't lodge a complaint because political parties are not distribution companies. (Making a complaint is still worth a try, though a better option is to follow…).
So how about 'No Junk Mail' signs? Although there's no agreed definition of 'junk mail' it's more or less accepted that the term refers to unaddressed, unsolicited and commercial advertisements. In other words, a 'No Junk Mail' sign should stop commercial items such as take-away menus and calling cards from local businesses, but not non-commercial items such as a leaflet from the local Council about bin collections around bank holidays or a leaflet from a neighbour about a missing cat.
Political leaflets don't advertise a commercial product and should therefore be classified as 'non-commercial' mail items. So, the candidates whose actions we're discussing are correct; they can ignore 'No Junk Mail' signs when delivering leaflets. That said, any claim that this is because political leaflets have 'national importance' is ludicrous. Many decades ago political leaflets might have been a vital part of the democratic process but such an argument is nonsense nowadays. Few people rely on unsolicited leaflets for information, and the average political leaflet contains nothing but negative campaigning and information about horse races. To many people political leaflets are like a red rag to a bull, and politicians know it.
It seems obvious, then, that the decent thing to do for political parties is to simply respect people's wishes. If someone contacts a political party directly to stop unwanted leaflets, why not comply? Not only is insisting on delivering unsolicited political leaflets needlessly provoking, it also contradicts the spirit of the Direct Marketing Association's Code of Practice:
"Members must have in place a structure to enable every effort to be made to respect a householder's wish not to receive unaddressed items, whether such requests are made directly to the member or via any industry schemes approved by the Association." (13.23 - Requests not to receive unaddressed items).
The three main parties are members of the Direct Marketing Association, and so the Code of Practice applies to them. The best best way to stop election flyers from any of these political parties is therefore to make a complaint to the Direct Marketing Association (which you can do via the Direct Marketing Commission).
Will it work? Personally, I find the above article 13.23 of the Direct Marketing Association's Code of Practice not very reassuring. It reluctantly talks about 'having a structure in place' and 'making an effort' - it doesn't say that it's an offence to deliver junk mail to people who have asked not to receive any. Still, it'd be interesting to see how the Direct Marketing Commission would deal with a complaint about candidates who insist on pushing junk mail through the door because of 'national importance'.
Of the three paper directories that can be cancelled via junkbuster.org.uk only one has the courtesy to acknowledge opt-out requests. The (almost) Good Guy is Thomson Local. When you cancel the Thomson Local directory you'll get a letter confirming (or rather, implying) that you've done so. Both the Yellow Pages and BT still have a policy of ignoring customers.
Thomson Local's standard letter is rather minimal though. It doesn't actually confirm that you have opted out, and it doesn't tell you for how long your address will be opted out. Let alone that the letter mentions who to complaint to should you get another another copy of the directory. Instead, the letter blabs on about iPhone and Android apps:
Thank you for contacting thomsonLocal.com [sic]. We understand that you do not wish to receive a hard copy of the directory. However, we can continue to help you to find what you need locally;-
If you have an iphone - the free thomsonLocal.com app can be downloaded if you go to the app store and search for thomsonlocal.com.
If you have an android phone - the thomsonLocal.com app can be downloaded for free by going to the android Market and searching for thomsonLocal.com.
Alternatively, we provide an online service with www.thomsonlocal.com.
Not very helpful, if you ask me. I'd suggest rewording the first paragraph as follows:
Thank you for contacting Thomson Local. We understand that you do not wish to receive a hard copy of the directory. This letter is to confirm that we have marked your address as opted out.
Please note that the opt-out will expire on [DATE]. We will contact before this date to find out if you wish to remain opted out.
Thomson Local is committed to respecting people's preferences. Should you receive another hard copy of the Thomson Local directory, please contact our distribution team at email@example.com, or phone our customer helpline on 01252 555 555.
Clearly directory publishers still find it difficult to say that they're committed to respecting people's preferences and to give them the information they need (see also Slow progress). Yet, Thomson Local deserves praise for making an attempt. If anything, the letter is much better than the company's previous confirmation letter.