High Court action against alleged spammer

The Department of Internal Affairs has issued a press release:

The Department of Internal Affairs’ Anti-Spam Compliance Unit is again taking High Court action against an alleged spammer, seeking financial penalties of $200,000 against the company principal and $500,000 against his company. The Department has lodged two statements of claim in the High Court in Auckland alleging breaches under the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007 by Brendan Paul Battles and Image Marketing Group Limited.

The latest court application alleges that in February and March 2009 Image Marketing Group Limited and Brendan Battles sent, or caused to be sent, 44,824 SMS (Short Message Service) messages to mobile phones connected to networks in New Zealand operated by Vodafone New Zealand Limited and Telecom New Zealand Limited.

It is alleged that the SMS messages were unsolicited commercial electronic messages with the primary purpose of inviting the recipient to purchase over the internet a mobile phone antenna booster. In its statement of claim the Department alleges the SMS messages contravened section 9 of the Act in that they were unsolicited, section 10 as they did not include accurate sender information and section 11 as they did not contain an unsubscribe facility that could be used by the recipient at no cost.

The reference to the lack of an unsubscribe facility comes on the heels of allegations that Telecom has contravened the Act for the same reason.

The DIA is seeking the maximum penalties – $200K for an individual, and $500K for a company. Hopefully, no spammer makes amounts in excess of these penalties (surely not??) – otherwise they’d still end up in the black!

It will be interesting to see how the claim is framed against Brendan Battles personally, and his company Image Marketing Group Limited. Unless Battles was sending emails in his own right, and not via Image Marketing, issues of the “corporate veil” arise. Such issues are common in commercial litigation. For example, liability under the Fair Trading Act 1986 can attach to company officers, even though they were acting under the veil of the company (see Personal Liability of Directors under the Fair Trading Act, PDF).

However, the anti-spam act contains a specific section covering “third party breaches” (accessory liability), and also includes sufficiently expansive language, to cast the net wide enough to enable personal liability to attach to company officers and employees.

Telecom txt spam – RTFC

Stuff reports that Telecom has been accused of “probably” breaching the anti-spam law:

Internal Affairs is looking into whether Telecom may have breached spam laws by sending text messages to customers that did not include instructions on how customers could unsubscribe from receiving such messages… Victoria University law student Hamish McConnochie drew attention to the texts, promoting Telecom’s pre-pay top-ups and roaming services …

Here’s a quick tip: look at Telecom’s Term’s & Conditions (see below).

The anti-spam law (the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007) requires certain types of commercial electronic messages to offer an unsubscribe facility. This law is “technology neutral” – it applies to all types of electronic messages, including emails, text messages, instant messages, etc. However, the unsubscribe facility is not needed where there is a “contract, arrangement or understanding” between the sender and receiver not to include an unsubscribe. Telcos are well aware of this law and usually take necessary steps to comply. Telecom argues it has such an arrangement as follows:

Telecom sent customers text messages in November telling recipients that unless they objected then, Telecom would deem they had agreed future text messages from the company need no longer include an opt-out message. Spokeswoman Anna Skerten said those messages created such an arrangement.

A “no response means you accept” text cannot create a contract. However, it is arguable that it could create an “arrangement or understanding” – which are clearly intended to mean something less than a contract or other form of express consent.

But what is unusual is that Telecom’s spokeswoman did not simply refer to Telecom’s mobile service terms and conditions (link is for the prepaid version – others exist). Clause 13(3) states:

From time to time we may send you sales and marketing information about Telecom products and services. You can let us know at any time if you do not want to receive sales and marketing information by contacting Telecom Customer Services

There is no need for messy arguments over whether some text sent last year created an “arrangement”, when there is a contract which clearly applies. Together with Telecom’s “opt-out” text, that would probably suffice (there may be a more specific opt-out in some of the other T&C’s but I’m not going to read them all…) Importantly, Telecom’s T&C’s, like most others, also include a “changes” provision allowing Telecom to modify its terms. So if Telecom decides it needs to change or clarify its T&C’s in response to this reportage, it can do so. It should. Vodafone’s T&C’s are much better, as they clearly state:

You agree that we and our Agents may send you marketing messages, electronic or otherwise, about our special offers, products and Services, and those of our selected Agents and third parties which may be of interest to you. You agree too that the electronic marketing message we, our Agents and third parties send need not include an unsubscribe facility.

Internal Affairs could allege that Telecom’s terms (together with the opt-out text) were insufficient and launch a prosecution. I don’t think it would succeed, and it would probably be a waste of taxpayer money:  the worst outcome for Telecom would be a relatively minor fine that would most likely not cover the costs of a defended prosecution. Also it is highly unlikely that any customer will be able to claim compensation (which requires loss to have occurred).

Finally there is room for argument that under clause 11(2)(a), third-party texts would still not be covered by the telco’s terms & conditions, but that is a separate question.