Data watch­dog in­ves­ti­gates ‘bin Che­quers’ email cam­paign

Brexit ads by se­cre­tive group could have breached pri­vacy rules

The Observer - - News - Michael Sav­age Pol­icy Edi­tor

A se­cre­tive group that has spent hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds en­cour­ag­ing vot­ers to back a hard Brexit is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by Bri­tain’s data watch­dog, it has emerged.

MPs had al­ready raised con­cerns about the ac­tiv­i­ties of the anony­mous Main­stream Net­work group, whose ads and web­site en­cour­age read­ers to “chuck Che­quers”, re­fer­ring to Theresa May’s pro­posed Brexit deal. It has been es­ti­mated that it could have spent up to £250,000 on the ads.

The In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice (ICO) has now con­firmed it is ex­am­in­ing whether an email cam­paign by Main­stream Net­work, or­gan­ised to lobby MPs to “bin Che­quers”, may have breached new GDPR rules gov­ern­ing per­sonal data. It fol­lows the de­ci­sion by the com­mis­sioner to fine Brexit cam­paign group Leave.EU and an in­sur­ance com­pany owned by Brexit-backer Ar­ron Banks over breaches of data laws.

A re­port by the com­mis­sioner stated that Leave.EU and El­don In­sur­ance – trad­ing as GoSkippy – were be­ing fined £60,000 for se­ri­ous breaches of the law that gov­erns elec­tronic mar­ket­ing. It said “a dis­turb­ing dis­re­gard for vot­ers’ per­sonal pri­vacy” had been un­cov­ered.

The or­gan­is­ers and fun­ders of Main­stream Net­work re­main anony­mous, while there are no de­tails on its web­site. Tech ex­perts sug­gested that who­ever set it up had gone to some lengths to hide any clues to their iden­tity. There are no ob­vi­ous records for the group held by Com­pa­nies House.

As well as us­ing ads and its web­site to push its anti-Che­quers mes­sage, Main­stream Net­work has also tar­geted so­cial me­dia users with Face­book ads, en­cour­ag­ing them to lobby their MP to op­pose May’s deal and sup­port a to­tal break with the EU.

“The big­gest demo­cratic de­ci­sion this na­tion has ever made was done so the UK can re­tain con­trol over its bor­der, money, laws, reg­u­la­tions and des­tiny,” it states. “So any half-hearted in-out deal would be the worst of any world: we would be in the EU in all but name, with­out the right to set our own laws or reg­u­la­tions, and un­able to in­flu­ence the 27 other mem­ber states.” Click­ing on one of the ads calls up a link to the user’s con­stituency and MP’s name. An­other click launches a pre-writ­ten email ad­dressed to their MP, with the Main­stream Net­work cam­paign copied in.

Ac­cord­ing to ev­i­dence gath­ered by the dig­i­tal cam­paign group 89up, Main­stream Net­work ads could have reached as many as 10 mil­lion users. Its ev­i­dence was pub­lished by the Com­mons Dig­i­tal, Cul­ture, Me­dia & Sport (DCMS) se­lect com­mit­tee, as part of its in­quiry into “fake news”.

The only means of con­tact­ing Main­stream Net­work is through its Face­book and Twit­ter ac­counts. The Ob­server re­ceived no re­sponse to a re­quest for comment yes­ter­day.

Face­book has so far de­clined to re­veal any de­tails about what it knows about the group. It has re­cently tightened rules around po­lit­i­cal ads. How­ever, it is de­lay­ing plans to re­quire Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers to ver­ify their iden­tity. Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS com­mit­tee, has said Main­stream Net­work was a “clearly so­phis­ti­cated or­gani- sa­tion spend­ing lots of money on a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign”.

Collins told the Ob­server yes­ter­day: “I think it is very im­por­tant that there is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Main­stream Net­work. When an or­gan­i­sa­tion is spend­ing so much pro­mot­ing po­lit­i­cal mes­sages about Brexit and en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to lobby their MP about it, I think we should have a right to know who is be­hind it.”

Mike Har­ris, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the 89up agency that re­vealed de­tails of the group, said: “Even af­ter our re­port to par­lia­ment’s DCMS se­lect com­mit­tee, rais­ing con­cerns Main­stream Net­work may have been act­ing il­le­gally, their Face­book page is still on­line and the web­site con­tin­ues to be up­dated with no fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on who is be­hind this site.

“We will be send­ing our re­search to the ICO and hope they re­veal the peo­ple or groups in­volved, the coun­try where the ad­ver­tis­ing orig­i­nated, and out­line if the law was breached.”

An ICO spokesper­son said: “We are aware of th­ese re­ports and are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the cir­cum­stances of the ads to un­der­stand whether any data pro­tec­tion rules have been breached.”

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