MPs highlight loopholes in UK anti-spam law

LONDON (10/06/2003) - The U.K. government should take a tougher stance on spam by tightening loopholes in an anti-spam law coming into effect in December, a group of Members of Parliament (MPs) urged Monday. But the MPs concede that U.K. and European laws would ultimately have little effect on combating the worldwide problem of spam.

MPs in the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG), including Derek Wyatt, Richard Allan and Brian White, released a report alerting the government to potential problems in its law. "We're not expecting the government to change the legislation at the moment but rather to recognize there are loopholes that need to be blocked at a later date," Allan said in a news conference held prior to the group's meeting with E-Minister Stephen Timms.

Representatives for Timms and the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) could not immediately be reached for comment.

Updating the current Telecoms Data Protection Directive, the new law seeks to impose fines of up to £5,000 (US$8,200) on companies and individuals caught sending unsolicited commercial e-mail and SMS (short messaging service) text messages to mobile phones. The law, which takes effect on Dec. 11, applies only to spam sent to individuals over personal accounts and not company e-mail accounts, according to the DTI.

APIG pointed out in its report that "the DTI has made a very serious mistake in not prohibiting unsolicited business-to-business e-mail." As a result the group called on the DTI to explicitly ban the sending of spam to business addresses. It also urged the DTI to establish a system for what it called "super complaints," or class action responses to spam, where organizations acting on behalf of e-mail users would be able to ensure that spammers could be brought to account before the courts.

Stressing that the government could only do so much to combat spam with legislation, the members of APIG recommended that ISPs (Internet service providers) develop blocklists of spammers, specifically, mechanisms for the release of statistical information that could then be used to assess the level of damage being done by particular spammers.

But despite the efforts, some question whether the U.K. and the European Union can really do much to stem the flow of spam. "There were lots of recommendations from APIG and some like the ideas like the blocklist are interesting, but the problem is worldwide and therefore needs worldwide legislation and cooperation," said Alyn Hockey, the Director of Research for the U.K. e-mail filtering company Clearswift Ltd.

The main problem with anti-spam laws in the European Union (EU) and U.K. is one of enforcement, Hockey said. Since the large majority of spam originates in the U.S., Southeast Asia and South America, laws that are only binding on European countries won't have much reach. Furthermore, though Europe favors "opt-in" anti-spam rules that prohibit e-mail marketers from sending promotions to individuals without their prior consent, U.S. lawmakers are tilting towards the "opt-out" method where the onus is put on individual users to let companies know that they do not wish to receive spam.

"Opt-in versus opt-out are two brick walls facing each other and unless the U.S. takes an opt-in approach, the European laws will be ineffective," Hockey said.

The members of APIG conceded on Monday that anti-spam legislation cannot be effective without the support of U.S. law. "Our (European and U.K.) legislation is based on Data Protection laws which are robust in the E.U. That is not the case in the U.S. and that is a problem," Allan said.

Governments and industry have to work together globally if the spread of spam is to be slowed down, but there are things the U.K. could do to make its laws at least somewhat effect on the external side, he said. Laws could be strengthened to make sending spam a conspiracy to defraud with criminal repercussions. For example, the Computer Misuse Act could be extended to target spammers who use e-mail accounts as "Trojan horses" to hide the spam's place of origin. "We could take action in the U.S. and extradite people if necessary," Allan said. But he acknowledged that would be a difficult and expensive option.

Along with legal action against spammers outside of Europe, bringing pressure on an international level could be effective in forcing countries as well as individual U.S. states such as Florida to crack down on spammers, White said.

Therefore the group is taking its case directly to Capitol Hill. On Oct. 13-16, the U.K. e-Envoy Andrew Pinder will join members of APIG for meetings with U.S. Senators and other lawmakers in Washington, D.C. [See "UK fights spam with law and a trip to Washington," Sept. 22.]

"We want to make U.S. lawmakers aware that when people use .com it impacts people outside of the U.S.," White said. "If we talk about it (with U.S. lawmakers), we'll find a solution. For example, we've (Europe and the U.S.) come to an understanding concerning data protection laws over the last five years. It isn't perfect, but it works and that's what we're hoping for with spam."

Though Clearswift's Hockey welcomed the APIG trip to the U.S., he is less than convinced the U.K. Members of Parliament would be able to sway their U.S. counterparts on the evils of opt-out legislation. "It's going to be an interesting head-to-head debate and it'll be interesting to find out what (APIG) is going to say afterwards. Maybe I'm just unfairly expecting the worst, but it does seem like they'll hit a brick wall," Hockey said.

The MPs themselves are all too aware that they may receive a chilly reception in the U.S. "Spam is damaging e-commerce across the globe. We're not saying we have the right solution, we're saying that we need to find one," White said.

"It'd be very depressing if we were here in a year's time and nothing had changed," Wyatt said.

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