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Latest updates - last updated 21 August 2023

21 August 2023 - Definition of “electronic communications service” amended to match the current wording in the Communications Act 2003.

In brief…

Different rules in PECR apply in different ways, using a variety of defined terms. Many of these terms are explained where relevant throughout this guide. The main concepts include:

  • service provider: provides telephone or internet services;
  • network provider: provides the underlying network equipment;
  • subscriber: the person whose name is on the bill; and
  • user: any individual using the phone or internet connection.

In more detail…

What are ‘electronic communications’?

PECR do not define ‘electronic communications’. Instead, the rules apply in different ways using specific concepts and definitions. For example, the marketing rules apply to specified types of marketing messages, and some other rules apply to service providers or communications providers.

Nevertheless, the basic concept of an electronic communication underpins the regulations, so it may be helpful to get a general sense of what we mean by this term.

Put simply, electronic communications mean any information sent between particular parties over a phone line or internet connection. This includes phone calls, faxes, text messages, video messages, emails and internet messaging. It does not include generally available information such as the content of web pages or broadcast programming.

What is a ‘public electronic communications network’?

A ‘public electronic communications network’ is defined in section 151 of the Communications Act 2003 as:

“an electronic communications network provided wholly or mainly for the purpose of making electronic communications services available to members of the public”.

An ‘electronic communications network’ is defined in section 32 of the Communications Act as:

“(a) a transmission system for the conveyance, by the use of electrical, magnetic or electro-magnetic energy, of signals of any description; and

(b) such of the following as are used, by the person providing the system and in association with it, for the conveyance of the signals—

(i) apparatus comprised in the system;

(ii) apparatus used for the switching or routing of the signals;

(iii) software and stored data; and

(iv) (except for the purposes of sections 125 to 127) other resources, including network elements which are not active.”

So a public electronic communications network is any transmitter or transmission system (plus associated equipment, software and stored data) used to convey electronic signals (including sounds, images or data of any description). This could be a wired or a wireless network – for example, a network of phone cables or a mobile phone network.

It does not include private or restricted networks, only networks used by service providers who have members of the public as customers.

The network ends at the customer’s point of connection (eg their master phone socket), so any equipment installed by a customer (eg wi-fi routers) does not form part of a relevant network.

In this guide ‘network’ means a public electronic communications network.

What is a ‘public electronic communications service’?

A ‘public electronic communications service’ is defined in section 151 of the Communications Act 2003 as:

“any electronic communications service that is provided so as to be available for use by members of the public”.

An ‘electronic communications service’ is defined in section 32 of the Communications Act as:

“a service of any of the types specified in subsection (2A) provided by means of an electronic communications network, except so far as it is a content service.

(2A) Those types of service are—

(a) an internet access service;

(b) a number-based interpersonal communications service; and

(c) any other service consisting in, or having as its principal feature, the conveyance of signals, such as a transmission service used for machine-to-machine services or for broadcasting.”

In other words, a public electronic communications service is any service that members of the public can sign up to in order to send or receive electronic signals (including sounds, images or data of any description) – for example, a phone contract or internet connection.

This does not include a ‘content service’ that provides or edits the actual content of signals – for example, a broadcast service or an online news service.

In this guide we generally use ‘service’ to mean a public electronic communications service.

What is a ‘service provider’?

Regulation 5(1) defines ‘service provider’ as a provider of a public electronic communications service.

Put simply, a service provider means someone who provides any service allowing members of the public to send electronic messages. This includes telecoms providers and internet service providers. Some service providers will operate their own network, but those using a network managed by a third party are also covered.

In our view, businesses offering wi-fi access to customers as a supplementary service are not service providers. A service provider would generally have a formal and ongoing contract with the customer subscribing to the service. By contrast, a coffee shop or hotel that provides wi-fi will itself be a subscriber to a service, and is simply permitting passing customers to use its connection.

For more information, see our security breaches guidance.

What is a ‘communications provider’?

A ‘communications provider’ is defined in section 405 of the Communications Act 2003 as someone who provides an electronic communications network or electronic communications service. So this term is broad and includes any organisation that operates a network or service, even if it is a private network or service not available to the public.

What is a ‘public communications provider’?

A ‘public communications provider’ is defined in PECR as a provider of a public electronic communications network or service. So this term covers service providers (that is, telecoms and internet service providers that have members of the public as customers), along with any third-party network operators that provide a network for those service providers.

Who are ‘subscribers’ and ‘users’?

PECR defines subscribers and users as follows:

“subscriber” means a person who is party to a contract with a provider of public electronic communications services for the supply of such services;

“user” means any individual using a public electronic communications service.

The subscriber is the customer who has a contract with the service provider – in other words, the person named on the bill for the telephone line or internet connection, or the person who owns the SIM card on a pay-as-you-go mobile contract. This may be an individual or an organisation.

The user is any individual actually using the phone or internet connection. This will not always be the same person as the subscriber – for example they might be the subscriber’s employee, a customer, a family member or a friend.

Who are ‘corporate subscribers’ and ‘individual subscribers’?

‘Corporate subscriber’ covers subscribers that are a corporate body with separate legal status. This includes companies, limited liability partnerships, Scottish partnerships, and some government bodies.

‘Individual subscriber’ covers individual customers (including sole traders) and other organisations (eg other types of partnership).