The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), the UK data watchdog, has fined campaign group Vote Leave US$53,000 (£40,000) for sending thousands of unsolicited text messages in the lead up to the 2016 EU referendum.
The investigation also found Vote Leave was unable to provide evidence the people who received the messages had given their consent, a key requirement of UK electronic marketing law.
"Spam texts are a real nuisance for millions of people and we will take action against organisations who disregard the law. Direct marketing is not just about selling products and services, it's also about promoting an organisation's aims and ideals. Political campaigns and parties, like any other organisations, have to comply with the law," said ICO Investigations Director Steve Eckersley.
Vote Leave claimed the texts were sent consensually information it used to contact people was obtained from enquiries which came through its website, individuals who'd responded via text to promotional leaflets, and entrants to a football competition. However, it was unable to provide evidence it'd received consent to send the messages, as it claimed to have deleted relevant information — such as details of phone numbers messages were sent from, and the volume of messages sent and received — after the referendum campaign.
Yet more law breaking by Vote Leave. Now fined a further £40,000. How much more is still to emerge? What a sewer that referendum was! https://t.co/1Hd5vXMMAm— Jo Maugham QC (@JolyonMaugham) March 19, 2019
The ICO is conducting an investigation into the use of data in political campaigns, and has taken action against a number of organisations engaged in campaigning for breaches of direct marketing and data protection laws, including Facebook, Aggregate IQ and Leave.EU.
The ICO fine is the latest legal bother for Vote Leave. Notoriously, in July 2018 the Electoral Commission found the organisation broke electoral law by significantly exceeding its legal spending limit, and returning incomplete and inaccurate spending reports to investigators, with hundreds of thousands of pounds incorrectly reported. The group was also found to have entered clandestine relationships with other ‘Leave' campaigning bodies in order to facilitate electoral overspend.
Electoral Commission concludes investigation into Brexit funds— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) July 17, 2018
*Vote Leave broke £7m legal spending limit by £500,000
*Vote Leave made inaccurate spending return
*Darren Grimes of BeLeave fined £20,000 and reported to police
*David Halsall of Vote Leave also reported to police
On top of sizeable fines, David Halsall, the responsible person for Vote Leave, was reported to the Metropolitan Police by the Commission — however, despite providing authorities with a "clear and substantial" dossier of evidence indicating Halsall had potentially engaged in criminal activity, a police investigation is yet to result. Speaking to openDemocracy in October, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police attributed the delay to "political sensitivities".