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Internet Communications (Regulation)

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the regulation and practices of email communications.

The Bill would ban open text e-mail disclaimers from the electronic communications of all UK Government Departments, agencies and councils and all UK limited companies.

We have all been there. A short e-mail comes in from a friend, colleague or company and we hit print. Then we look in horror as page after page spews out. The e-mail itself is not the end. It is often not even the beginning of the end—merely the end of the beginning. What follows is a disclaimer, of varying lengths and comprehensibility, informing us that the e-mail we have just received is intended for a specific recipient, that it may contain confidential information, and that it must not be used, disclosed, stored or copied. Should we find that we are not the intended recipient, we are instructed to destroy the e-mail—to erase it both from existence and from our memory—and to make immediate contact with the sender to alert them to the mistake. That same disclaimer appears on every subsequent e-mail.

Frankly, disclaimers are not worth the paper they are unnecessarily printed on. They attempt unilaterally to create a contract between the sender and the recipient, without asking for the consent of the recipient. They aim to scare the unintended and unaware recipient of a misplaced e-mail into doing what is asked of them, despite there being no obligation to do so. Even if there is a legal obligation not to divulge something confidential, why bother to say so at length when it is already covered by our law and does not need repeating? Little thought is ever given to whether the disclaimers are necessary or even if they mean anything, yet companies, councils and Government Departments take the view that, if others have them, it must mean that they ought to as well. That is simply not the case. Legal opinion is agreed that they hold little if any weight and the chances of one being enforced are minimal. In essence, they add nothing. If anyone really feels the need to issue a legal warning, then stick on a little link as a footer, or a header attachment that is not in open format.

The Economist, displaying typical good sense, noted in 2011 that the European Commission has already declared that any attempt to impose a contractual obligation on a consumer who has not had the opportunity freely to negotiate it must be struck out by the courts. An e-mail disclaimer is a perfect example of such an attempt, particularly as the vast majority come after, not before, the body of the message. Legally, disclaimers attempt to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, and at the same time they fly in the face of common sense, for everyone knows that if we get a letter that is meant for someone else, we either find them so we can give it to them, or we return it to the sender. The written envelope does not need a legal warning on the outside, and neither does an e-mail.

What causes the greatest frustration, however, is their interminable length, and on a BlackBerry, for instance, the inability to delete them. Judging from the cross-section of e-mails in my inbox, I estimate that most fall within 100 and 200 words in length. I am pleased to report, Mr Speaker, that Parliament’s own disclaimer is among the pithier ones floating around cyber-space, coming in at a slim 60 words. I regret, however, that it lags some way behind the disclaimer that follows e-mails from the Department for International Development, where, in what I consider to be one of my proudest ministerial achievements, I managed, against the forces of unnecessary bossiness, to whittle it down to a mere 17 words. Indeed, it was more of a little footer than a real disclaimer. None of those 17 words, I should add, attempted to impose an obligation on the recipient. Instead, they simply encouraged them to learn more of DFID’s work, and it provided a link to the DFID website and Twitter account. As in so many things, DFID ought to be an example for the rest of Whitehall to follow—and you and I surely agree, Mr Speaker, that short is beautiful.

Even the Labour party, in a marked departure from the norm, has embraced the concept of austerity—if only when it comes to disclaimers. As you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, I am not a regular recipient of the little red missives sent out by Labour, but am reliably informed that their disclaimer is fewer than 50 words. It is with a heavy heart, however, that I confess that my own party, which has demonstrated such admirable restraint with the public finances over the past five years, cannot replicate this self-control in its own 183-word disclaimer. As the Prime Minister has said in this House, there is still much more to be done, and, I would add, much less to be printed.

In some cases, the practice has gone beyond parody, however. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the disclaimer appended to an e-mail from the investment bank Nomura Group ran to a staggering 2,578 words. If I were to have devoted the entire length of my speech in support of this Bill to simply reading out that disclaimer, I would not even have come close to reaching the bottom. Rather than attempting to do so, I will set out—echoing a further little Leninist moment—“What Is To Be Done.”

This Bill would require all Government Departments, agencies and councils, and all UK limited companies, to do away entirely with open format disclaimers. Even today, I call on all of them simply to amend them voluntarily without delay—why not set an example, and just do it? Only by exposing disclaimers for the toothless waffle that they are can we hope to stem their proliferation, and by doing so we can end the practice that leaves page after page of repeated disclaimers clagging up the bottom of e-mail chains for no good reason.

Enough is enough, Mr Speaker. Never again do we want e-mail chains that say in one line “Fancy lunch, mate?” and then immediately the one line is followed by 20 undeletable lines of legal officiousness.

It is a matter of national pride that it was a British computer scientist who invented the worldwide web. This moment of innovative genius should not be allowed to be tarnished by the very worst of sluggish, bureaucratic verbiage that is represented by the e-mail disclaimer. They are way out of date—a hangover from the early days of the internet which have long since been overtaken. They are as arcane as waving a red flag to warn pedestrians of an approaching vehicle. It is high time, therefore, that we put a stop to these meaningless missives that clog up our inboxes, deplete our printer cartridges of precious ink and cut down forests’ worth of paper. The footer and the header can survive, but let us now condemn the needless disclaimer to the dustbin of internet history. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Sir Alan Duncan, Damian Green, Christopher Pincher and Steve Baker present the Bill.

Sir Alan Duncan accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March, and to be printed (Bill 146).