Home Blogs Diary 2014 11

The door-drop mystery

21st November 2014

I'm still catching up with the junk mail campaign. I've received a response to my Freedom of Information request from the Electoral Commission and have spoken with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) about how selling voters' personal details sits with the Data Protection Act. First, though, an update on the Door-Drop Preference Service.

As you may recall (probably not) the Door-Drop Preference Service was part of a voluntary agreement between Defra and the junk mail industry. In November 2011, Defra announced that the two opt-out schemes for unaddressed junk mail would be merged and that the hoi polloi would finally be allowed to opt out online. The new opt-out website was going to be run by the Direct Marketing Association and would be launched in April 2012 but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the junk mail association subsequently refused to launch the website (even though they had built the bloody thing). The Freedom of Information request I had submitted to Defra at the time learned that the junk mailers felt that Defra had not kept to its part of the deal. The opt-out scheme only applies to members of the Direct Marketing Association and they feared that the few door-drop companies that are members of the club would cancel their membership (so that they could continue the carpet bombing). To prevent such a disaster Defra needed to engage with other parts of the industry. Or, translated to normal English: the Direct Marketing Association demanded that Defra would make non-DMA members part of the deal.

This was a rather wild interpretation of what was agreed in November 2011 and an impossible demand. There are thousands of companies that in some way distribute leaflets; whether it are local door-drop companies or publishers of free newspapers (which are often junk mail in disguise and/or stuffed with inserts). Why would a small leaflet distributor in, say, West Runton, want to become part of a formal deal between the Direct Marketing Association and Defra? And how is Defra supposed to talk and make agreements with thousands of individual companies? If you were wondering why the Door-Drop Preference Service still hasn't been launched… that's your answer.

Anyway, in November 2012 I submitted another Freedom of Information request. I wanted to find out how Defra was getting on with the implementation of the scheme but by this time they were sick of me and refused to say anything. They argued that because the implementation was still ongoing they couldn't release any meaningful information. My counter-argument, that it was in the public interest to find out why the scheme still hadn't been launched, was eventually rejected by the ICO (on 5 February this year, to be precise).

I've today asked the ICO to reconsider its decision. In its decision notice the ICO stated that Defra had said that they expected the scheme to be implemented by the April 2014 and that they would be able to provide the information I had requested at that point. This (false) fact was no doubt a significant consideration in the 'public interest test' the ICO undertook. Had Defra been honest and told the ICO that they don't have a clue as to when the scheme is going to be implemented the ICO might well have decided that the public interest in releasing the information outweighs Defra's arguments.

I expect the ICO will respond by stating that I should have appealed within 28 days from the date of its decision – even though that would have been before April 2014. I've therefore also submitted a fresh Freedom of Information request to Defra. If all goes well I should have more information by this time next year.

Some interesting developments

While preparing my latest Freedom of Information request I came across an answer from Defra to another request for information. The letter, dated 17 July 2014, mentions the voluntary agreement with the junk mail industry and goes on to say:

By the end of 2014, the direct marketing industry aim to achieve a 25 per cent increase on the industry's current use of suppression files, launch an 'all-in-one' consumer preference service for unaddressed mail, maintain public awareness of the consumer preference services and retain established direct mail recycling rates.

Emphasis by me. The 25 per cent increase in the use of suppression files is ambitious and it will be interesting to see if the target will be met, while the latter two aims lack any ambition (maintain public awareness of opt-out schemes and retain recycling rates… wow!). The really interesting statement is that the industry is aiming to launch the Door-Drop Preference Service by the end of this year. The information I got so far suggested that the industry was waiting for Defra, rather than the other way round. It seems that something might have changed and that the launch of the scheme might be near. The next paragraph puts the ball even more clearly in the corner of the junk mail community:

Defra's objectives for cutting waste in the production of printed direct marketing communications focus on waste prevention, sustainable production, and distribution and recycling. Defra had a meeting with the Direct Marketing Association in December last year to ascertain progress with the implementation. Although implementation for some of the key actions has not met the deadlines outlined, they are progressing and we expect that they will be implemented. However, the Direct Marketing Association has confirmed that it has not delivered one key aspect, namely the launch of the Single Preference Service by April 2012 – a single opt-out system that consumers could complete online to stop unaddressed direct marketing mail, as opposed to the Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail separate systems currently being used. As it is a voluntary agreement, progress with aspects of the deal are for the Direct Marketing Association to address.

Again, emphasis by me. The statement is interesting because it's basically telling the Direct Marketing Association to just get on with it. We saw a similar response in May 2012, when Defra's press officer first learned about the Direct Marketing Association's refusal to launch the opt-out scheme – she responded by telling the industry that although Defra had agreed to commit to engage with other parts of the industry they had not agreed that the website would only be launched once those 'other parts' had been successfully engaged. We know that the press officer didn't get backed by her colleagues as Defra told the ICO early this year that its negotiations with the newspaper and magazine industry were to be completed shortly. It's weird, then, that the letter states that the launch of the opt-out scheme is the Direct Marketing Association's problem.

Also interesting, it appears that Defra and the Direct Marketing Association don't talk a lot. The meeting referred to in the letter was seven months ago. You'd almost think they're not in a hurry.

And there's more!

However, the deal only applies to members of the Direct Marketing Association and does not cover junk mail distributed by local businesses and items such as paper directories and free newspapers. Defra recognised the measures imposed on the industry could result in junk mailers cancelling their membership of the association in an attempt to continue business as usual, hence the emphasis on making such material recyclable.

The first thing to note in the last paragraph is the change of tone. I've never seen Defra use terms such as junk mail and junk mailer – they always use the industry's jargon (i.e. unsolicited leaflets are Unaddressed direct mail communications). Also note that Defra's letter suddenly presents the opt-out scheme as a measure imposed on the industry. Again, that's quite a departure from the usual language – so far Defra has been careful to present the opt-out scheme as an initiative which both parties welcome. When the scheme was first announced, for instance, Defra produced a press release in which the boss of the Direct Marketing Association explained just how keen they were to introduce the new scheme. He was lying, of course, but it's unusual for that to be acknowledged.

The last paragraph is also interesting because it suggests Defra has given up on trying to get the whole newspaper and magazine industry on board. Instead of getting that family-owned leaflet distributor in West Runton to sign up to the deal the emphasis is now on making such material recyclable. It's an intriguing statement as, to the best of my knowledge, just about all unaddressed junk mail is recyclable already.

And so the door-drop mystery continues…

Last updated: 
21st November 2014

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