Sending Email Newsletters That Comply With Singapore Law

Last updated on November 22, 2021

Cartoon of desktop with email icons and mobile devices around it

Email newsletters or marketing emails are convenient and cost-effective ways of connecting with customers old and new. If you’re a business owner of any kind, email is a communication channel you should definitely consider taking advantage of.

There are certain legal issues you should be aware of when sending email newsletters and keeping an email subscriber list. This article will cover the legal issues that may arise in relation to:

  1. Managing Your Email Subscriber List
    • Buying of email addresses
    • Collecting subscribers
    • Allowing subscribers to unsubscribe from your email newsletter
    • Protecting your subscriber list
    • Consequences of breaching the Personal Data Protection Act
  2. Preparing Your Email Newsletter Content
    • Writing the email newsletter copy
    • Using images and videos in your email newsletter
  3. Sending Your Email Newsletters
    • Sending of unsolicited email newsletters
    • Sending your email newsletters internationally

The main laws which govern email newsletters and your subscriber list are the Spam Control Act and the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) respectively.

Under the PDPA, personal data is any data or other information an organisation has or is likely to have access to which can identify an individual. Since an email address is very personal and usually only belongs to a particular person, it would likely be considered personal data. Other personal data, for example, are a person’s name or NRIC/FIN number.

The Copyright Act, the Defamation Act, and other laws may also govern your email newsletters and subscriber list.

1. Managing Your Subscriber List

Your subscriber list is a prized asset. More subscribers on your subscriber list means more people are seeing your brand or reading about how they’ll benefit from your products or services. However, you have to be careful about how you get subscribers to send your email newsletters to.

Buying of email addresses

As a general rule, buying email addresses (also known as leads) will not help your business in the long run.

The PDPA disallows the use or disclosure of personal data for purposes other than what individuals have consented to. This means you can only send emails to individuals on your subscriber list who have consented to you having access to their personal data or for you to send them email newsletters.

You will therefore have to verify that the leads you are buying did agree to their personal data being disclosed to you for you to use in your email marketing before you start sending them email newsletters.

Collecting subscribers

Instead of buying leads, you may wish to collect your own subscribers. The PDPA applies equally to the collection of personal data, so before you collect others’ email addresses and send them email newsletters, you must:

  • Inform them of why their data is being collected;
  • Inform them of how their data would be used or disclosed; and
  • Get their consent for such use or disclosure.

You can assume that subscribers have consented if they had voluntarily given their personal data to you.

Why and how you are collecting or using their personal data should not be beyond what is reasonable to provide or promote your product or service. For example, getting their consent to use or disclose their personal data however you want is probably not reasonable.

Allowing subscribers to unsubscribe from your email newsletter

The PDPA requires you to provide subscribers an option to withdraw their consent to your collection, use or disclosure of their personal data.

When you have been notified that a subscriber wishes to withdraw his or her consent, you must inform the subscriber of the likely consequences of doing so. You cannot disallow a subscriber from withdrawing their consent.

Once a subscriber withdraws their consent, you can no longer collect, use, or disclose their personal data. That means you must stop sending them your email newsletters and remove their personal data from your database and any documents which contain their data.

Protecting your subscriber list

If you collect personal data or have or control over any personal data, you must provide reasonable security to prevent unauthorised access, collection, use, disclosure, copying, modification, disposal or similar risks.

For example, your subscriber list should not be available online to anyone who has the correct link to the list.

The PDPA requires you to have policies and practices to help you or your business to comply with the PDPA and communicate these with your staff. Also, you must have a way to receive and respond to complaints about personal data. Your policies and practices must be made available on request.

Consequences of breaching the Personal Data Protection Act

If you do not comply with the PDPA, you or your business could be fined up to $10,000. You could also be imprisoned for up to 3 years.

For every day you continue to offend the PDPA after conviction, you could be fined up to $1,000 a day. You may also be sued.

2. Preparing Your Email Newsletter Content

Now that you’ve got subscribers to send emails to, it’s time to prepare the email newsletter that you’re going to send. You want your email newsletters to read, sound, and look amazing to convince your subscribers of the quality of your products or services.

While you do that, there are some basic issues you will want to consider while writing the email newsletter copy, and using images and videos in your email newsletter.

Writing the email newsletter copy

(a) Your email newsletter copy should be truthful and accurate

Whatever you write in your newsletters should present your products or services truthfully or accurately. You can market your product in a fancy way but it should not deceive or mislead your potential customers into believing that your products or services are better than how they actually are.

The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, which applies to mailing lists, provides principles to follow when writing your email newsletters. Some of these principles are:

  1. All advertisements should be legal, decent, honest, and truthful.
  2. All advertisements should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to the consumer and society.
  3. All advertisements should conform to the principles of fair competition generally accepted in business, including non-denigration, non-exploitation of goodwill, and non-imitation.
  4. All advertisements shall not subvert the shared values in Singapore’s society, such as racial and religious harmony.
  5. All advertisements shall not subvert Singapore’s family values, such as mutual respect.
  6. No advertisement should bring advertising into disrepute or reduce confidence in it as a service to industry and to the public.

There are also specific practices which the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA) prohibits. Some, like representing goods as new or unused or if they are not, are common sense. Others are more specific, like offering certain items as free gifts or prizes in exchange for goods or services purchased if you know those items will not be given as offered.

If you misrepresent your products or services in your email newsletters and cause your customers to suffer a loss because they relied on your misrepresentations, they may claim against you for monetary damages.

Consumers can also lodge a complaint with the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) against your business or sue for unfair practices under the CPFTA. Enterprise Singapore may also investigate and prosecute your business for its unfair practices.

(b) Your email newsletter copy should not contain defamatory statements

When writing your newsletter, you should be careful to not defame any person or company. This means you shouldn’t write or post anything referring to another person or company which would cause others to think less of them, or cause them to be shunned or avoided, or expose them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.

For example, you shouldn’t falsely state that another company stole your ideas. This would cause society to think less of them as a company, harming their business reputation.

If your statements affect a person or company’s official, professional, or business reputation, the defamed person or company doesn’t have to actually suffer any loss to claim against you. Avoid writing anything which could be thought of as defamatory unless:

  • What you are writing is based on facts which can be supported by evidence; or
  • You are expressing an unbiased opinion on a matter of public interest based on true facts.

If you have defamed someone, you may be sued for monetary damages or ordered to stop by the court. You may also be fined or jailed up to 2 years, or both, for the criminal offence of defamation under section 499 of the Penal Code.

You can read more about online defamation here.

Using images and videos in your email newsletter

Google Images and YouTube have great images and videos you may want to include in your newsletters. While these images and videos are publicly available online, this does not mean they are available to use as you wish, especially if you will be using them for personal profit.

The Copyright Act governs almost all manner of creative work, such as photos, videos, songs, and games. We’ll call them “works” for convenience.

As a general rule, using a work without the copyright owner’s permission would be illegal. Merely crediting the copyright owner or author of the work does not make it legal to use their work. Altering the work is also a no-no.

Before using a work, you should check if the copyright owner grants rights to use them in certain ways, for example for non-profit use only or for commercial use if they are credited. A common way rights might be granted online are through Creative Commons Licences. If you want to be safe, you should use either free-to-use images or purchase stock images to use in your email newsletters.

If you infringe on copyright, the copyright owner may claim against you for damages or your profits. The court can also order you to stop using the copyrighted work, deliver them to the copyright owner, and/or destroy all copies of the work that you have.

Aside from that, if you knowingly or ought to have known that you were infringing on copyright, and your infringement prejudicially affected the copyright owner, you may be fined up to either $20,000 or $2,000 per infringed copy, whichever amount is higher and/or or jailed for up to 2 years if you are an individual. Non-individuals, such as businesses, may be fined up to either $40,000 or $4,000 per infringed copy, whichever amount is higher.

If the copyright infringement involves commercial dealings, individuals may be fined up to $100,000 or $10,000 per infringed copy (whichever is higher) and/or jailed for up to 5 years. Non-individuals, such as businesses, may be fined up to $200,000 or $20,000 per infringed copy, whichever amount is higher.

Note that if you infringe on copyright without knowing that the act was an infringement, the court will not order damages for the infringement. However, it may still require you to pay up profits attributable to the copyright owner.

You can read more about how to legally use images that belong to others here.

3. Sending Your Email Newsletters

Once you’ve finalised the content of your email newsletters, it’s about time to send your email newsletters out.

Sending of unsolicited email newsletters

If you’re sending them out to subscribers who have consented to receiving your email newsletters, do a final check for spelling, grammar and all of what’s mentioned above, and you’re good to hit send.

However, if you are sending your email newsletters in bulk to recipients who did not request to receive or consent to receiving your emails, or if you are a member of the Direct Marketing Association of Singapore (DMAS), you need to comply with the requirements under the Spam Control Act’s Second Schedule.

Examples of these requirements are:

  • Putting “<ADV>” before your email subject to indicate that your email newsletter is an advertisement
  • Providing an email address to receive unsubscribe requests
  • Not sending any more unsolicited emails to recipients 10 working days after the date of their request to unsubscribe

A checklist you could consult for a quick overview of the Spam Control Act’s Second Schedule requirements is available here.

Under the Spam Control Act, you are considered to be sending emails in bulk if you send more than:

  • 100 emails with the same or similar content in a 24-hour period
  • 1,000 emails with the same or similar content during a 30-day period
  • 10,000 emails with the same or similar content during a 1-year period

Not obeying the Spam Control Act could lead you to be sued by the recipients of your email newsletters for damages. If you are found to have offended the Spam Control Act, you could be ordered to pay $25 for each unsolicited email, up to a total of $1 million.

Sending your email newsletters internationally

If you have dreams of an international business, you need to know that different countries’ laws on personal data protection, spam control, copyright, defamation, and all other related areas may differ from Singapore’s requirements.

For example, the US CAN-SPAM Act (or the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) requires all marketing emails to include a physical mailing address. Singapore’s Spam Control Act does not have this requirement, although DMAS members are required by the DMAS Code of Practice to do so.

Need Legal Advice?

Promoting your business isn’t easy and you want to make sure your marketing emails are not only effective but also legal. A good data protection lawyer can help you identify risks and pitfalls so you can focus on growing your business.

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