It seems the Palmer United Party is spreading its campaign emails far and wide. Crikey readers have reported receiving them on a variety of .gov.au, .edu.au and .org.au email addresses across Australia — even the generic email addresses used by Senate committees have been hit — and we’re hearing reports of three or four emails being sent per day. Most recipients have characterised these emails as spam and are wondering if they’re legal and how PUP got hold of their email addresses.
The legality first. Yes, these emails are perfectly legal. And they’re not even spam, at least under Australian law. The Spam Act 2003 requires “commercial electronic messages” to be sent only with the recipient’s consent (either expressly given or inferred). They must also properly identify the sender, and they must have a working unsubscribe facility that removes you from the list within 72 hours.
But a wide range of organisations are exempt from many of the act’s provisions, including registered political parties — as well as government bodies, registered charities, religious organisations and educational institutions (when the email is sent to current and former students and their households). These “designated commercial electronic messages” don’t have to meet the consent and unsubscribe requirements of the act — although the identity requirement remains.
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So if PUP, or any other political party, has your email address, then it is free to send you email as often as it likes, whether you want it or not. Welcome to democracy. That said, having a working unsubscribe facility is generally better PR than annoying people.
As for getting your email address, well, that’s a lot easier than most people imagine.
We approached PUP for an explanation of how its email list has been compiled, but we did not hear back before deadline. This is an outline of the methods available.
For a start, there are online directories for the federal government and the states, listing at least key individuals and generic contact addresses. Anyone can just trawl through and compile a mailing list. Universities usually have staff directories, and even if, like this one at UTS, they can’t be browsed unless you have a university login, it’d be easy enough to find an ally on the inside.
But one needn’t go to all that effort. It’s easier to buy or rent an existing mailing list. A web search for “email lists Australia” will deliver a whole swathe of companies that’d be happy to email your message to the demographic of your choice. While consent is an issue for commercial operators, political parties are exempt.
Where do those companies get their addresses from? From all manner of organisations that have decided to sell access to the own email databases. That’s pretty much every organisation you’ve ever given your email address to that didn’t explicitly say it wouldn’t “share” it, or that had a box asking whether you wanted to receive email from its partners or whatever. Competition entries, online news or magazine subscriptions and professional associations are likely candidates here.
Then there’s the “informal” trading of email lists. The most polite way of explaining this is that some organisations, or some individuals with access to an organisation’s data, have a relaxed attitude when it comes to taking copies of customer or membership databases.
Remember, your email address isn’t exactly a secret. It’s known to every individual and organisation that you’ve ever emailed, or that a friend or colleague has emailed and copied you on.
Given the combination of legitimate e-marketing firms and the grey and black markets in mailing lists, and the willingness with which some party members — of any political party — would be willing to lend a hand, it’s actually a wonder PUP’s emails aren’t even more widely spread than they are.