When is a spam not a spam? When it’s a service update

That’s the claim of findmypast.co.uk, one of a number of websites designed to help those interested in the subject of genealogy with the task of investigating their family tree. They seem to think it is perfectly acceptable to send out a marketing email – very specifically, advertising new, lower subscription rates – and claim that it isn’t a marketing email, it’s a “service update”, an email that it is necessary to send out to their membership (and from which said members can’t unsubscribe).

Genealogy isn’t actually in my sphere of interest at all. I signed up to the website, along with a couple of others, some years ago when another member of my family briefly took an interest and needed a little assistance – and, as ever, it goes without saying that I used an email address specific to that site, and it’s unlikely in the extreme that I would have set up my email preferences to receive marketing emails. That’s my normal approach, even when joining something that does interest me!

However, on 26th August, 2011, I received an email from findmypast.co.uk, which I finally spotted on the 30th. I’ve included the body of the email here as a PDF file with my email address and any likely tracking numbers removed (although I probably needn’t have bothered since I’ve already complained to them about it, and I’ll be forwarding them the link to this page). That very clearly looks like an advertisement for their service.

With my usual email preferences in mind, I logged into the site to check that they hadn’t been changed from my original choices. This is what I saw:

findmypast.co.uk marketing email option
findmypast.co.uk marketing email option - only one, unticked

There is just one option regarding marketing emails: Tick it to receive them, leave it unticked if you don’t want them – and, unsurprisingly, for me it was unticked.

So, on the face of it, findmypast.co.uk have chosen to disregard their members’ preferences and send this email out anyway – in spite of their own “no spam guarantee“. What does their “no spam guarantee” actually say? Well, as of today – 31st August, 2011 – when you visit that page, you get this:

findmypast.co.uk's "no spam guarantee" - a 404 page
findmypast.co.uk's "no spam guarantee" - a 404 page

I suppose that makes sense – their “no spam guarantee” can’t be a guarantee of no spam, as demonstrated by the fact they’ve sent out spam. In fact, the answer appears to be in the wording of the link: “no spam guarantee” – there isn’t a guarantee of no spam!

Another page worth a read is their “privacy policy” which does include a promise, of sorts, not to send spam:

Emails we send you: We try only to send you emails which are relevant and help you with your family history or tell you important things about the website. There are some emails which we send you only if we have your permission (marketing emails). There are some emails which we send you even if we don’t have your permission (service emails) – we send these to administer the service.

So, they make a distinction between “marketing emails” – which they’ll only send with permission (in other words, if that email preferences option shown above is ticked) – and “service emails” which are sent to “administer” the service, which they’ll send members regardless. Without looking further, I’d expect service emails to be those which could be considered a necessity – for paying members, for example, notifying them that their subscription renewal is due would fall under this category.

Helpfully, they go on to explain the two types of email, and their own description of service emails fits my interpretation:

Service emails: We need to send these to administer the service. Service emails include registration and payment confirmations, warnings that we are about to charge you or that your subscription or credits are about to expire, and welcome emails that provide useful information about how to use a service or feature when you sign up or start using it. Also, if we make a fundamental change to the website or our Terms & Conditions that we think we need to make you aware of (for legal or simply for courtesy reasons), we will send you a service email.

So with that in mind, let’s look at the email they sent once again. Let’s look, in particular, at the “small print” showing at the foot of the email:

findmypast.co.uk - small print from the email
findmypast.co.uk - small print from the email

So, they are claiming that the email – which explained the services they offered and highlighted their new prices – was actually a “service update” and not a “marketing email”:

This email is a Service Update which we need to send to you to administrate our service, which means that you cannot unsubscribe from it.

They needed to tell me about their new pricing structure in order to “administrate” their service? I don’t think so – I call BS, so I emailed them to ask for their justification. I started out by explaining my usual decision to opt not to receive marketing emails, pointing out that I had the option on their website unticked as necessary, and asked:

So why did you choose to ignore that setting – and indeed legislation in the UK – and send me a promotional email?

I also highlighted that item of small print, and stated:

Claiming the email to be something else does not change what it is – and that’s a marketing email and, under the circumstances, one that can legitimately be called spam. I would like an explanation, an apology, and assurances that it won’t happen again.

Their reply, in full, is as follows:

Good morning

Thank you for your email.

The recent email that you received from us advising about our price changes was, a service email which was sent to all relevant FindMyPast customers.

It is not possible to unsubscribe from these service emails as there are certain types of changes to your membership which we are obliged to advise you about.

If you would like further details of the type of mailings that are classed as service emails, please feel free to read through our Privacy Policy via the below link


Alternatively, if you would prefer to completely remove your details from the FindMyPast website, please just reply back to this email to let us know and we will arrange that for you.

Please do let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

Kind Regards,


Findmypast Support Team

No apology, no assurance that it won’t happen again – and no attempt to explain how they can justify calling a marketing email a “service email”, only the reiteration that a service email is what it was. And an inconsistent use of capitalisation on their own name.

findmypast.co.uk – you are fucking spammers. And that’s not bad language, it’s a service label.

Related posts