An Enforcement Reality supporting my “Penalty Points” idea

Over my morning coffee this morning I read this story from about the UK ICO beginning ‘soft enforcement’ of the ePrivacy regulations around cookies.

Good news: They are starting to enforce the law. They will be taking a balanced approach. I assume that the letters will take the form of Information Notices and possibly Enforcement Notices.

Bad news: The level of breach that not complying with the Cookie provisions of the ePrivacy Directive constitutes is not likely to meet the standard of severity required for the ICO to levy a fine.

So businesses will receive a letter. But we can be assured it will be a strongly worded one. But, given the mental discounting that management do in compliance situations, this is inevitably going to lead to precisely no change in compliance behaviour. When faced with the question “So, what’s the worst that is likely to happen?” Data Protection Officers or advisors will have nowhere to go in their persuasion. It is all carrot and no stick. And CxO level managers are pure carnivores, so carrots are not that enticing on their own.

  • There will be no financial penalty for the Cookie breach
  • Any penalty that might arise will be for failing to comply with an Enforcement notice or provide information requested under an Information Notice. But that would require another cycle or three of communication between the ICO and the infringing company.

There is no sting in the tail. The arc that must be travelled between Breach and Penalty is too long. And as every parent of a toddler knows, there is no point putting them on the naughty step days or weeks after their valiant but doomed attempt to juggle with kittens.

Hence the need, in my view, to have something else that allows a sting to be put in the tail, that wraps the polite letter from the ICO (or the Irish DPC for that matter) in a small brick that will get attention. In my opinion, if the EU is serious about changing attitudes to Data Protection amongst businesses it needs to ensure that the laws that are passed can be enforced with both carrot and stick so that culture and values in business will change.

Breaches of the Cookies rules fit the bill nicely for a structured penalty system that allows for cumulative penalties to build towards a more serious fine or enforcement action. Assume, for argument, that writing a non-essential cookie without notice and consent was a 1 point offence carrying a fixed penalty notice of €120/£100 for first offence (with higher penalties for subsequent offences). Audit tools such as those developed by could be used to audit the site, tot up the number of cookies, an investigator could make a judgement as to the essentialness and generate a fixed penalty notice attached to the letter.

Perhaps the 1st offence would be a “freebie”, with a second failure leading to a penalty (after all, we want this to be fair and graduated). At some threshold (let’s say 20 points) more serious penalties would kick in (perhaps the €2million outlined in the proposed Regulation, or mandatory multi-year privacy audits such as being imposed on firms in the US by the FTC). As this is an evolving thought doodle I won’t waste time mapping specifics here.

If the penalty points for the Cookie infringement formed part of the overall “scorecard” that a company would accumulate, adding to the risk of a more severe penalty (and the inevitability for hard core recidivists). If, as with parking tickets and speeding fines, the Data Controller had the right to appeal the fixed penalty to the Courts (at the risk of a greater penalty and increased publicity), the “mental discounting’” would need to change. This would change the conversation for Data Protection Officers and advisors when the letter comes.

Boss: "What is the worst that they can do?

DP Team: “Well,50 cookies being written has already cost you €5000 in fixed price penalties. You can appeal them to Court, but that carries a risk of the penalty being increased further and a conviction being recorded against you.”

Boss: “OK, so pay the fine and then we keep going.”

 Boss: “Oh shit. Let’s fix this then”

Just as cumulative breaches of Road safety lead to serious penalties, cumulative breaches of Data Protection rules could lead to more serious penalties.

The benefit of this approach is it would encourage and incentivise organisations to focus on the small stuff. And as repeated studies in risk management and accident investigation have shown, the major disasters are usually a result of an accumulation of small things.

According to econsultancy, the ICO is considering applying penalties based on a scale. It is not a significant jump from a scale for a specific penalty to a framework for levying administrative sanctions in a structured and transparent manner.

The customer conundrum

I’m a customer of a few on-online services. I have really liked using Tweetdeck for the past few months (hang on… years… eek). The problem is that I’m busy. Nuts busy. I’ve a business, a family, and a strange compulsion to sleep maybe a few minutes or three every day or so.

I’m a voracious reader and idea gatherer. This is the problem I’m facing now. Tweetdeck/twitter has put a massive pool of people at my disposal who are sticking post-it notes under my nose every few seconds saying “Hey, you might like this. Click through and read it”. And I do. And I get lost in clicks-ville as I wander through related content.

Continue reading

An open letter to Viviane Reding

Dear Commissioner Reding,

I’m writing to you as an EU Citizen who is passionate about data, is use, its quality, and its protection. I’m not writing to you as the Managing Director of a company that offers Data Protection training and consulting services, but in the interests of transparency I think it best to disclose that that is my day job.

I am writing to you about the new Data Protection Regulation. In particular I’m writing to you about the penalties contained in the current draft proposal. Frankly I think they suck. I don’t think they’ll have the effect that you think they will have. I’m basing my opinion on a number of bases:

  1. I have worked in Regulatory Operations in a Regulated industry that you are familar with, telecommunications.
  2. I’m a keen student of human psychology and economics, particularly the psychology and economics of risk and reward.Understanding this “theory of psychology” is important in the world of Information Quality.
  3. I like to observe and learn from other industries and areas of life to see what can be applied to improving quality systems for and the governance of information.
  4. I’m the parent of a toddler. This might not appear immediately relevant but, in the context of Data Protection, my immediate experiences dealing with a stubborn personality in development who is programmed to push boundaries and infuriate me with apparent disregard for the standard of behaviour expected of her all too often find their parallels in the management teams and staff of organisations I’ve worked with.

Taking these elements together I am afraid that 5% of Global turnover will not work as a penalty. It’s a great soundbite but will, in practical terms, amount to little more. There are a few reasons for this.

Continue reading

Newspaper Licensing Ireland–a revisit

So, late last night I wrote a post about NLI and their link license fee nonsense.

In that post I decided to focus on the non-compliant behaviour of an organisation setting itself out as being the arbiters of compliance with copyright when it came to the data protection/privacy compliance obligations that they appear to either be unaware of or consciously ignorant of (I presume the latter).

I clearly stated that I wasn’t going to talk about the economic impact of inbound links to websites from the point of view of driving search engine relevance, getting sites onto the first page of Google, and generally providing a basis for establishing valuation models for on-line advertising.

It’s not my area of expertise, so I thought it best not to say anything.

But today I searched for “Newspaper Licensing Ireland” in Google.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that, apart from content by or directly about Newspaper Licensing Ireland, there were articles by, McGarrSolicitors, and your humble scribe.

On page 1 of Google. In the top 6 things returned for that search string. In less than 24 hours.

What made this happen? Links. Lots of loverly links being spread through websites and social media networks like, as I described them last night, the “footnotes on the Internet”.

This is what helps drive traffic to websites, making them more valuable pieces of virtual real estate within which to place advertising.

Charging people a fee to put up a sign post to your shop makes no economic sense in the bricks and mortar world. It makes even less sense in online.

After all, links are more properly called “Universal Resource Locators” (URLs). And in this way they are exactly the same as sign posts. They tell people, uniquely, where to find a particular resource. Just like a footnote in book.

Will NLI start charging license fees for those as well? If so, I’m fudged completely as my last two books have LOADS of footnotes in them.

Newspaper Licensing Ireland–a return

The last post was a little long and analytical. Having reread the great post on I thought I’d reframe my Data Protection take on this in terms that might be more familiar.

Personal Data is being processed via your website without an appropriate Privacy Statement and without any communication of the purposes for that processing. Furthermore, the failure to have such a privacy statement on your site which references the use of Google Analytics is a breach of Section 8 of the terms and conditions that apply to Google Analytics. Failure to obtain consent for the use of the cookies written by Google for the purposes of Google Analytics is a breach of SI336.

You are breaking the law; you risk exposing your company to investigation and prosecution, with financial penalties and brand damage ensuing. Processing personal data without it being obtained fairly for a lawful purpose, and writing 3rd party cookies without consent is illegal and breaches a fundamental Human Right in the European Union.

What do you think?

I may be over egging it a little. I need a cup of tea now and a good sit down.

Newspaper Licensing Ireland– some thoughts

This post is about the website of Newspaper Licensing Ireland, who have recently written to a non-profit organisation whose aims I wholeheartedly support, seeking license fees for linking to newspaper content published on the internet by the newspaper publishers. McGarr Solicitors, who are acting for Women’s Aid, have published a detailed analysis of the situation and the questions raised on their website, which I link to in the confidence that the McGarrs won’t come looking for a pound of flesh in return.Sticky buns perhaps, but nothing worse.

I will ignore the fact that this action seems to be in ignorance of the way the Internet works, particularly with regard to search engine optimisation and page ranking where relevance and significance of content, and hence it’s positioning in Google searches and the value of the real-estate for on-line advertising purposes. I’ll ignore how the use of links simply tells people to “look over here – I found this interesting, so you might to”. I’ll ignore the fact that links are effectively the footnotes on the Interweb that tell people where your source was for a thing. 

(But if you do want to actually understand this aspect, the Wikipedia entry on Search Engine Optimisation has a reference to the Google PageRank algorithm and how it works (at a high level). And Dr. Cathal Gurrin in Dublin City University did his Doctoral thesis on the topic.And I’m sure someone somewhere has done an economic analysis of link density [the number of inbound links to a site] but I can’t be bothered to look for it tonight.)

What I will talk about here is the fact that, when I went to the NewsPaper Licensing Ireland site (which I won’t link to… just in case) to see what the potential cost to an SME with 0-10 employees would be. I still don’t know the answer.

I’d expected a form that would take certain inputs and churn them around to spit out a ball park figure. I’d expected to see something that would relate the license cost to, for example, the average hits or distinct site visits on the SME company site per month (to make the cost meaningful as those stats are the foot fall of the Web).

What I didn’t expect was to be asked for a contact name and the name of the company on that form. Company name I’m not to concerned about. But the contact name…

…that’s personal data. Therefore under s2 of the Data Protection Acts it must be obtained for specified and lawful purpose and must be fairly obtained. So I went looking for a Privacy Statement (there was none). So I turned on my cookie checkers to see what was being written by the site to my device wot is connected to a public communications network (and therefore would be a cookie within the meaning of SI336 and as such would require consent unless necessary for the service I’m trying to avail of).

My tools revealed that NLI are using Google Analytics on their site. In a manner which is in breach of the Terms and Conditions of use for Google Analytics which state very clearly in Section 8:


8.1 You will not associate (or permit any third party to associate) any data gathered from Your Website(s) (or such third parties’ website(s)) with any personally identifying information from any source as part of Your use (or such third parties’ use) of the Service. You will comply with all applicable data protection and privacy laws relating to Your use of the Service and the collection of information from visitors to Your websites. You will have in place in a prominent position on your Website (and will comply with) an appropriate privacy policy. You will also use reasonable endeavours to bring to the attention of website users a statement which in all material respects is as follows:

“This website uses Google Analytics, a web analytics service provided by Google, Inc. (“Google”).  Google Analytics uses “cookies”, which are text files placed on your computer, to help the website analyze how users use the site. The information generated by the cookie about your use of the website (including your IP address) will be transmitted to and stored by Google on servers in the United States . Google will use this information for the purpose of evaluating your use of the website, compiling reports on website activity for website operators and providing other services relating to website activity and internet usage.  Google may also transfer this information to third parties where required to do so by law, or where such third parties process the information on Google’s behalf. Google will not associate your IP address with any other data held by Google.  You may refuse the use of cookies by selecting the appropriate settings on your browser, however please note that if you do this you may not be able to use the full functionality of this website.  By using this website, you consent to the processing of data about you by Google in the manner and for the purposes set out above.”

The emphasis in bold is mine. What Google requires is for people using GA to put in place a Privacy Statement but that that Privacy statement needs to clearly detail the use of Google Analytics, the fact of data transfer to the US, the purposes to which the data will be used etc.

NLI have no such Privacy statement, and no such text, so no mechanism to confirm my consent to the cookies that are being written by Google Analytics.

So, the site is operating in breach of SI336 and Google’s terms and conditions, and is effectively breaching contractual conditions governing the use of Google’s services and the fundamental right to Personal Data Privacy as enshrined in Article 16 of the Lisbon Treaty.

All of which I’d never have considered looking at at all if they weren’t sending threatening letters to a charity that exists to help and protect women experiencing domestic violence.