A global approach is needed to prevent the internet grinding to a halt, say MPs
Legislators on both sides of the Atlantic are facing increasing pressure to step up their efforts to clamp down on spam, with critics saying existing measures do not to enough to address the growing problem of unsolicited e-mails bombarding companies.
A delegation of UK MPs is due to arrive in Washington DC this week in the hope of persuading US lawmakers to take a tougher approach to spam, which accounts for about 55% of all e-mail traffic and costs global businesses an estimated $10bn (£6bn) a year in lost productivity.
There are various technical steps that companies can take to combat spam, such as using filtering software and locking down e-mail gateways, but these will never stop all unsolicited e-mails, the technology companies admit.
E-envoy Andrew Pinder will join members of the All-party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG) for meetings with senators and other lawmakers in the US to press the case for an "opt-in" approach, as adopted by the European Union, which prohibits marketers from sending e-mail promotions to individuals without obtaining their prior consent.
Lawmakers in the US have expressed a preference for the "opt-out" method where the onus is put on individual users to let companies know that they do not wish to receive spam.
MP Derek Wyatt, chairman of the APIG, said a joined-up approach is key to beating the spammers. "As 90% of all spamming e-mails originate in the US, we must try to persuade our political colleagues in Washington that their opt-out system might just ensure that the internet becomes blocked forever, which will push up costs and act as a major disincentive to use," he said.
Last week, in the report on its three-month inquiry into spam, the APIG urged the US and Australian governments to adopt anti-spam legislation aligned with the European Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications.
It called on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - which has organised a World Spam Summit for October 2004 - to push for consistent anti-spam legislation on a global basis.
"If Europe and the US were to have consistent laws, there would be considerable pressure on other parts of the world to fall in to line," the report said.
However, Rex Parry, head of IT and e-commerce at law firm Eversheds, said consistency in global legislation is unlikely.
"Just as certain countries are tax havens, I do not believe that all the countries in the world will adopt the same legislation," he said. "Unless you stop people in all countries from sending the stuff, you are always going to get spam."
Addressing spam on a global level is vital, but the UK government also needs to step up its efforts to stem the tide of spam flooding both businesses and consumers in this country, the MPs warned.
Last month, the Department of Trade & Industry outlined a new directive under which companies and individuals could be fined up to £5,000 for sending unsolicited commercial e-mail and text messages to private individuals without prior agreement.
However, the APIG called on the DTI to extend the ban on sending unsolicited e-mails - which will come into effect on 11 December - to business addresses.
"We believe that the DTI has made a very serious mistake in not prohibiting unsolicited business-to-business e-mail," the report said. "When the DTI changes the rules on business-to-business 'cold calling' they should take the opportunity to explicitly ban the sending of spam to business addresses."
The APIG recommendation echoes widespread criticism of the DTI legislation from industry groups such as the Spamhaus Project, which branded the law "toothless".
"Britain's much anticipated anti-spam law has been rendered toothless and will now do very little, if anything, to stop spam in the UK," the anti-spam organisation said last month. "Instead it will create more confusion and misery for British businesses, with spammers insisting that spamming anything that sounds like a business address is legal."
The information commissioner, who is overseeing the DTI's anti-spam legislation, needs tougher and more flexible powers to clamp down on spam, the APIG said.
"We recommend that the DTI urgently review the ability of the information commissioner to police the new regulations on the sending of spam and provide appropriate powers to deal with what will inevitably be rapidly changing situations," the report said.
The DTI should also show its "full and formal support" for properly operated blocklists - databases of known sources of spam - the APIG said. The committee said the government should financially support "those blocklists that meet the highest standards and hence those that they would wish to see used by the public sector".
With spam already costing UK businesses £3.2bn a year in lost productivity, it is clear that the government, which has said it wants the UK to be the best place to do e-commerce in the world, needs to step up its legislative efforts to address the issue.
The APIG believes its report's recommendations will help governments both in the UK and abroad to clamp down on spam, but companies will be watching closely to see to what extent the advice is acted on.
APIG Report: key reaction
Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist, MessageLabs
"Without a strong legal position on spam the problem will continue to grow and will keep costing UK businesses billions of pounds every year."
Richard Allan, joint vice-chairman, All-party Parliamentary Internet Group
"If all the report's recommendations were implemented, then our constituents could expect to see a significant reduction in the amount of spam they receive."
Rex Parry, head of IT and e-commerce law, Eversheds
"There are some sensible suggestions, like including business e-mail in legislation as spam at work is just as, if not more, frustrating than at home. I do not believe that all countries in the world will adopt the same legislation."
Alyn Hockey, director of research, e-mail security company Clearswift
"The findings certainly make plenty of recommendations, but until serious measures are taken, the problem of spam will only worsen. The World Spam Summit in October 2004 is a year too late - we need action now."
Read the full report
This was first published in October 2003