Dealing with unsolicited or offensive e-mail
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 e-mails are also called SPAM. These mails can sometimes be adult in nature. Receiving adult UCE is annoying and, in some cases, upsetting. Under SI 336 of 2011 [European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services) (Privacy and Electronic Communications) Regulations 2011] the sending of unsolicited commercial emails can be an offence. and 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.
Unsolicited mobile telephone text messages
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.
What can you do about unsolicited commercial e-mail?
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.
What to do if you receive UCE
In the vast bulk of cases of UCE, the e-mail headers you see in the unwanted e-mail are not valid.
- E-mail headers may be forged so replying to the e-mail merely results in you sending UCE to the innocent person whose e-mail address was forged.
- It is not advised to respond to an e-mail address to "opt-out" of a list unless the address is from a recognised organisation. These e-mail addresses may also be false or are used to confirm that the unwanted e-mail was originally sent to a valid and active e-mail account.
- Responding to a web site that supposedly lets you remove yourself from the list is also not advised. This is because once you access the web site your details are logged. You could also you be exposed to pornography.
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 e-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.
The Data Protection Commissioner does not charge for his services
How to apply
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.