Recent developments in communications technology have produced an environment in which information can move between people and organisations more rapidly than ever before. However, one drawback is that sometimes we receive information we do not want. This document explains the law in Ireland and the EU regarding your rights when dealing with unsolicited or offensive e-mails.
One of the most common problems affecting people with e-mail accounts is unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE). Unsolicited commercial e-mails are e-mails that have not been requested from a company of which the receiver is not a customer. These mails are also called SPAM. These mails can sometimes be adult in nature. Receiving adult UCE is annoying and, in some cases, upsetting. Since November 2003 under SI 535 of 2003 [European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services) (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 2003] the sending of unsolicited commercial mail from Ireland has in some instances been an offence. Under SI 526 of 2008 [European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services) (Data Protection and Privacy) (Amendment) Regulations 2008] an offender can be tried summarily or on indictment.
Reputable companies should not market their products through unsolicited commercial mails. It is, therefore, important not to engage with any company who sends unsolicited commercial e-mails by replying to them or contacting them through other means.
In September 2005 for the first time, a company in Ireland was prosecuted by the Data Protection Commissioner for sending unsolicited commercial text messages to mobile telephone subscribers. These text messages also qualify as SPAM. Read more about dealing with unwanted telephone sales calls here.
Unsolicitied commercial e-mail (UCE) can come from various organisations, companies or be the product of ‘computer viruses’. Companies or individuals can get your e-mail address from the web. Other sources exist such as marketing lists that you sign up to and are passed between companies. Unsolicited commercial e-mails generally also come from outside Ireland and outside the European Union. This means that it is quite difficult to stop the occurrence of UCE as it is a global phenomenon. Generally, there is little that you can do to prevent unsolicited commercial e-mails being sent to you.
In the vast bulk of cases of UCE, the e-mail headers you see in the unwanted e-mail are not valid.
It is possible to determine the location (rather than the user or the e-mail address) from where the e-mail was sent. If you are able to look at the e-mail headers, you will then be able to determine the IP address of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) whose services were used to send the e-mail. Finding out exactly where UCE has come from can be difficult and time consuming.
If you receive a lot of unsolicited commercial or offensive emails you can subscribe to a software programme that will filter out messages that you may not want to receive.
If you have determined the location of the sender of these mails, then it may be possible to send an e-mail to abuse@isp to complain about the e-mail. However, adult e-mails are not illegal in many countries including Ireland. If you do succeed in sending an e-mail complaint to abuse@isp and the material is illegal in the jurisdiction it originated in or in breach of the Acceptable Use Policy of the sender's ISP, the ISP can disconnect the sender. However, it might be unable to tell you the name of the sender due to international data protection regulations. In many cases, the sender just moves to a different ISP and starts the process again.
The Child Trafficking and Pornography Act, 1998 outlaws child pornography. Any person found to produce, forward, publish, show or possess child pornography is committing a crime. www.HOTLINE.ie was established by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland to deal with instances of child pornography or other illegal material that Irish internet users come across either on the internet or in an e-mail. This website is connected to other similar hotlines in other countries and so can work across borders.
More information on unsolicited commercial e-mail is available online from Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner or online from the Commission for Telecommunications Regulation (Comreg).
The Data Protection Commissioner does not charge for his services
You can make a complaint about unsolicited commercial e-mail that was sent from Ireland to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. Your complaint must be in writing (e-mail will do) including your name and postal address. You can read more about the Data Protection Commissioner’s requirements for making a complaint here.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.