Can my e-communication be prohibited as spam or unlawful use of data? (cont’d)
(b) Chatting, Tweets and private messages: ‘electronic mail’?
Then comes the following question: which kinds of messages are considered as ‘electronic mail’ under the AISS and thus subject to a prohibition of advertising without ‘(soft) opt-in’?
The prohibition in Article 14(1) of the AISS uses the following wording: ‘the use of electronic mail for advertising purposes is prohibited […]’ [Note: Rough translation.
French text: "L’utilisation du courrier électronique à des fins de publicité est interdite […]"
Dutch text: "Het gebruik van elektronische post voor reclame is verboden […]"]. The words ‘electronic mail’ are defined in Article 2(2) as follows: ‘any text, voice, sound or image message sent over a public communications network which can be stored in the network or in the recipient’s terminal equipment until it is collected by the recipient’ [Note: English version of Directive 2002/58/EC.
French text: "tout message sous forme de texte, de voix, de son ou d’image envoyé par un réseau public de communications qui peut être stocké dans le réseau ou dans l’équipement terminal du destinataire jusqu’à ce que ce dernier le récupère."
Dutch text: "tekst-, spraak, geluids- of beeldbericht dat over een openbaar communicatienetwerk wordt verzonden en in het netwerk of in de eindapparatuur van de ontvanger kan worden opgeslagen tot het door de afnemer wordt opgehaald."].
In practice, most ‘private’ communication services (i.e. to a limited number of recipients) in writing (i.e. not audio-visual) fall within the scope of this definition, from text-based chatting (live discussion), text messages (SMS) and private messages on web boards or on Facebook to messages sent via Apple’s iMessage or via RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger. Indeed, there are generally two aspects to these services: an immediate dispatch over a public communications network and the possibility for a delayed delivery to the recipient. For instance, if Leon opens a chat window on Facebook and writes a message for the attention of his friend Emma, Emma will be able to read the message later when she connects to the service in question, even if it is in principle a ‘live’ discussion system rather than a ‘delayed’ discussion system. While not all chat systems offer the possibility of delayed delivery, one should avoid systematically excluding such systems from the definition of electronic mail under the AISS [Note: For the opposite view, see M. TRUYENS, ‘Aandachtspunten bij online reclame’ in P. Van Eecke (ed.), Recht en elektronische handel, Larcier, Brussels, 2011, pp. 278-280, who considers that live discussion systems are not at all covered by the prohibition of advertising for which the AISS provides.].
On the other hand, ‘public’ communications (e.g. publishing an article on a blog or a web board to which access or registration is free, or a public Tweet) do not fall within the scope of the definition. Indeed, Directive 2002/58/EC of 12 July 2002 concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector, which was implemented in part into Belgian law through Article 14 of the AISS, limits the prohibition of unsolicited advertising to communications that are made ‘between a finite number of parties’.
Naturally, there are borderline cases that are worth examining. Is a status update on Facebook electronic mail for the attention of Emma’s 283 friends? It is indeed a communication between a finite number of parties, and the service meets the requirements of immediate dispatch over a public communications network and the possibility for a delayed delivery to the recipient. Similarly, a ‘Promoted Tweet’, i.e. a company’s Tweet that can appear on the ‘Twitter timeline’ of the web user (the list of Tweets meant for him or her) even if the latter has never accepted to follow the company on Twitter [Note: See Twitter’s explanation of Promoted Tweets], is also a borderline case, as it could be deemed to be specifically meant for the web user (even though the Tweet itself is public).
In our view, the criterion of a ‘finite number of parties’ is to be construed as meaning a finite and unchangeable number of parties. This entails that the definition of ‘electronic mail’ covers amongst other things e-mails to 27 people, private messages on Twitter and the Facebook chat system (to a certain degree). On the other hand, a status update by a person who has just registered on Facebook and has three ‘friends’ would not fall within the scope of the definition, given that the message in question can be read by an increasing number of people (if the new user has 12 ‘friends’ after a week, 31 after a month, etc.). Moreover, a post on the Facebook wall of a given person or a Tweet addressed to someone in particular (e.g. ‘@LeonJQ: nice product – epic pictures taken in front of the Atomium!’) could be deemed to be electronic mail under the AISS, as two distinct operations make up such a post or Tweet, namely a message between two specific persons on the one hand and a public message on the other hand.
Without adding this element to the definition, there is the risk that in the future, targeted advertising, i.e. adverts that are displayed only for web users of a specific category, might be deemed to be a message between a finite number of parties (the advertiser and the finite but changeable number of web users belonging to the category) and thus be subject to the prohibition of advertising without the prior obtaining of a ‘(soft) opt-in’.