Ministry sells school email addresses to marketer

A Christchurch computer reseller bought a list of email addresses of all New Zealand schools from the Ministry of Education, and has used it to promote its products to "a sample" of schools.

A director of a Christchurch computer reseller bought a list of email addresses of all New Zealand schools from the Ministry of Education, and has used it to promote his company’s products to “a sample” of schools.

Alan Donohue of DT Computers sent a 350Kb message, including a catalogue and order form, to a large number of schools and other prospects. Some of the schools complained to their ISP, Manawatu Internet Services. Its managing director, Alan Brown, a trenchant spam opponent, passed the complaint on to DT Computers’ ISP, Paradise, which said it would issue a warning and cancel DT’s account if the practice is repeated.

Donohue claims he has checked with three schools and no complaints had been registered. The secretary at Monrad Intermediate School in Palmerston North — not among Donohue’s three — says she asked MIS to block any further advertising emails “but we did not make an official complaint".

Not only is spam an inconvenience to these schools, says Brown, but because they are classed as businesses they pay by the minute even for local phone calls.

Following Computerworld’s inquiries, Donohue sent Brown a fax threatening legal action. Brown contacted DT’s website host, Web Central of Brisbane, and the company has now withdrawn its services from DT.

Donohue says: “I’ll stop if everyone else stops, and that includes all media.” As long as people fill his letterbox with junk mail and he continues to receive unsolicited faxes and email from advertisers, he says, he considers he is within his rights to continue his own email promotion.

As to the suggestion of his promotion being spam, Donohue requests a definition. When “unsolicited commercial email” is suggested, he protests: “This was not unsolicited. The Ministry of Education publishes these names and I paid $659 for them. If the schools let their names be published, then they can’t say mails to them are unsolicited.”

Some schools were positive, he says. “I had messages from some saying what a great idea it was.”

Sue McGeough, information officer in the Ministry of Education’s data management division, says the ministry does sell “school profiles” — a set of basic information about each school, including physical address, telephone numbers and email addresses where available. The price is in the region mentioned by Donohue — “$610 for the profiles of all schools, but he may have bought other information as well” such as details of tertiary institutions.

School details are “public information”, she says, so there is no reason for the procedure to be run past the Privacy Commissioner. Anyone can get school email addresses free from Te Kete Ipurangi’s website, and other sources.

Buying it from the ministry means it is delivered in a complete and consistent form, she says, whereas using free information sources, “they might have to search around and pull the pieces together”.

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