All too often junk mailers try to get around data protection legislation by hiding opt-out boxes. The solution is simple; opt-out boxes should be replaced by opt-in boxes.
I should perhaps clarify that there's nothing wrong with 'direct marketing' per se. Stop Junk Mail isn't about criticising people who buy things from catalogues or who ask specific companies to send them discount offers and/or marketing materials. What the campaign takes issue with is unsolicited advertising mail; the stuff you never asked for. Unless you ask a company to use your personal details for marketing purposes they should leave you alone.
Fairly and lawfully?
There's nothing outlandish or revolutionary about this view. In fact, it's a principle reflected in the Data Protection Act 1998; any person or organisation is legally obliged to process personal data “
fairly and lawfully”. In the case of 'direct marketing', this means companies must be transparent about how they intend to use people's data, and to only use the data in ways people would expect.
The Data Protection Act doesn't actually say marketeers need to present people with opt-out boxes. Instead, the Act says they need to handle data in a way that's fair, lawful, and transparent. Which begs the question: why are there so many opt-out boxes?
The marketing lens
Marketeers dread data protection legislation. Every time the Direct Marketing Association repeats its (unverifiable) claim that the whole UK economy will collapse if preventing unsolicited mail is made easier they're really saying the public should be force-fed junk mail. This is why the Mailing Preference Service is hardly effective, and why the existence of other opt-out schemes isn't even advertised. It explains why every measure that would make things just a little bit easier for people is opposed, and why they don't talk with consumer groups and environmental organisations.
Nothing, though, illustrates the industry's unwillingness to comply with data protection legislation more than the existence of the opt-out box. By using opt-out boxes junk mailers arguably comply with the letter of the Data Protect Act, but no more than that. They usually write in somewhat vague language how they intend to use your personal details - but they do so in a font size that is scarcely legible, and the information is more often than not hidden somewhere in the mouse print. Industry experts call this “
interpreting data legislation through the marketing lens” (Jenny Moseley, director of Opt-4, In Publishing, January 2005). As said, marketeers don't like data protection.
The data protection lens
A ban on opt-out boxes would prevent people unwittingly give marketeers permission to do with their personal details as they please. Rather than asking you if you object, they'd need to ask you if you agree. Tick boxes and information about how your personal details are going to be used would no longer be hidden. And, banning the opt-out box is democratic. The majority of people routinely search the small print for opt-out boxes, it's only fair to make 'opted out' the default option.
If this sounds like a common-sense idea to you I got a petition for you…