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.

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