The disparity in powers between the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Ofcom has once again been highlighted after the latter was able to fine BT £800,000 for the late launch of a text-to-speech service – far in excess of anything the ICO can issue for data loss incidents.
The ICO can issue fines to a maximum of £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act – breaches that often result in sensitive personal information being lost or stolen, causing huge distress for those concerned.
However, Ofcom – which in 2013 fined TalkTalk £750,000 for some nuisance calls to customers – has been able to issue a far larger fine to BT for the late launch of the Next Generation Text Service (NTGS).
The NTGS helps people with hearing or speech impediments to either type what they want to say and have it relayed to the person on the other end, or, if hard of hearing, to have what someone says to them translated to text to read on screen.
Ofcom issued the fine because BT was five months late in launching the service, putting it live in October, when it was slated for an 18 April launch.
BT explained that the delay was caused by a problem with the sound quality of emergency calls, something that came to light at a late stage of the development process.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said the size of the fine showed how seriously the organisation took this failure.
“The size of the penalty imposed on BT reflects the importance of providing an improved text relay service to its customers with hearing and speech impairments,” he said.
BT must pay the £800,000 penalty to Ofcom, which will then pass it on to HM Treasury.
In a statement BT apologised for the delay but said that since going live it was please to hear positive feedback from users.
“We’re sorry we had to postpone the full launch of the Next Generation Text service. This was because of a safety issue with the quality of emergency calls that could have put users at risk," it said.
"The service has been warmly welcomed by users. Hearing and speech impaired people can now make faster, more fluent phone calls using ordinary smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs, as well as existing specialised terminals.”
While no one would disagree that providing such a service is important and that BT’s failings warranted some form of reprimand, the scale of the fine when set against the ICO’s powers once again shows the madness of the current data protection regime.
The only hope is that when the new European Data Protection Regulation comes into force – which looks increasingly likely – the proposal for data watchdogs to be able to fine firms a portion of their annual turnover will make it to the statute books.
This should make the financial penalties for data protection breaches far more terrifying to big businesses, making data protection a more important consideration, and giving the ICO the chance to issue fines that will really make people sit up and take notice.
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