CASE STUDY 5/00
Eircom – ex-directory telephone customers – proposed disclosure to other telecommunications companies – limited use of ex-directory customer data – compliance with decision of ODTR
Eircom, a telecommunications company, maintained a large database of its telephone subscribers, some of whom were ex-directory. In the context of providing directory enquiries services, the company included the name and address of ex-directory subscribers, although the telephone number was blocked. Other telecommunications companies were allowed access to the Eircom subscriber database for the purpose of providing competing directory services, but data about ex-directory customers was withheld. The competing companies protested to the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation (ODTR) that the withholding of ex-directory data, and its limited use by Eircom for directory services, was unfair and anti-competitive. The ODTR, having considered the matter and consulted with this Office, held (in its Dispute Resolution Determination Number 03/00) that Eircom was correct to withhold ex-directory data for reasons of data protection law, but that Eircom should make no use of the ex-directory data in its own directory service – thus maintaining a level playing-field with its competitors in this business. ODTR also observed that consumers' best interests would be served by providing them with a wider range of options regarding the uses of their personal data.
Subsequently, in October 2000, Eircom issued a mailing (by open postcard) to its ex-directory subscribers, informing them that their names and addresses, but not their telephone numbers, would be passed to other telecommunications companies for the purpose of providing directory information services. The mailing also said that subscribers had a right to have their personal details excluded from such directory information databases.
This mailing gave rise to confusion and concern among some subscribers, who complained to me that their data protection rights were being undermined. I raised the matter immediately with Eircom, which explained that it was attempting to comply with the ODTR decision, particularly with regard to widening the choices of subscribers about the uses of personal data. However, I pointed out that the mailing did not appear to meet this objective. The mailing simply informed ex-directory subscribers that their personal data would be disclosed to third parties and that subscribers could opt out of this practice by writing to Eircom. In my view, any such disclosure would be in breach of the Data Protection Act, in the absence of the positive consent of subscribers. I also expressed the view that mailings of this nature should not take place by way of open postcard.
Following these discussions, Eircom undertook not to issue any further mailings about the proposed disclosure; not to disclose ex-directory subscriber data to other telecommunications companies; and confirmed that such data would not be used in Eircom's own directory enquiries service.
I consider it appropriate to point out that, despite the confusion that arose in this instance, Eircom has on the whole shown itself to be a responsible and conscientious data controller, which takes its data protection obligations quite seriously as a general rule. More generally, the Directory Information Services Forum (DISF), a discussion group convened by the ODTR, has recently made welcome progress in laying down guidelines for the responsible use of the National Directory Database, the principal telephone directory which will include the directory listings from all Irish telecommunications service companies. I am happy to record that there is an increasing acceptance among telecommunications companies that the provision of services to subscribers, and commercial services using subscriber data, needs to be based upon the fundamental principle of subscriber consent. Indeed, the solid assurances on this front arising from the DISF initiative and other initiatives may, in my view, lead to a reduction in the high proportion of subscribers in Ireland who choose to have ex-directory status.