Attempts to combat spam will be hampered if the US fails to introduce an outright ban, a senior European Commission official said yesterday.
A law banning unsolicited e-mail messages comes into force in the 15-member European Union this autumn. The law prohibits e-mail marketers in the EU from sending their promotions to individuals unless those targeted have expressly asked to receive promotions.
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The US government appears to favour an opt-out approach, whereby marketers can sell their wares to anyone by e-mail unless the person targeted asks to be removed from their list.
Yesterday, the commission sought to promote international co-operation and to raise public awareness of how individuals can help in tracking down spammers.
By the end of the third quarter, spam will account for more half of all e-mail traffic in the EU and globally, the commission said. One third of all spam is believed to originate from the US. French and Belgian data protection officials estimate that around 85% of all spam in their countries is in English.
Convicted spammers are known to hop from one jurisdiction to another to continue their activities, said Erkki Liikanen, commissioner for enterprise and the information society.
However, co-operation with the US. "would be restricted if we end up with an opt-out system in the US", said Philippe Gerard, an official in Liikanen's department.
"The US authorities appear to be focusing only on spam that is deceptive or worse. We, on the other hand, believe that even the harmless spam messages are a serious problem too, because of the enormous volume of them."
The commission estimated that the loss in productivity because of spam cost EU businesses around €2.5bn in 2002. Lost productivity includes the value of the time wasted by recipients clearing out spam from their inboxes and the loss of performance from PCs clogged up with spam.
"If there was any co-operation with the US, it would only be in areas where we both agree action is needed," Gerard said. The deluge of harmless but annoying spam messages would not, therefore, become a common enemy, he added.
Liikanen refrained from criticising the US's approach to combating spam. "The US Federal Trade Commission is looking for a solution," he said, but he added that he remained "sceptical" about an opt-out approach. "It will always be less efficient than an opt-in rule."
Data Protection Commission president Stefano Rodota said that even if the US does choose the opt-out route, US businesses will go further to stamp out spam.
"A big part of the business community in the US is moving towards opt-in because firms such as Procter & Gamble view spam as a threat to their abilities to sell their products over the net," he said.
Europe's ISPs welcomed the commission's latest efforts to fight spam. "The new rules are a crucial tool in the battle of ISPs to limit the damage caused by this incessant and ever-changing problem, both to themselves and to their customers," trade association EuroISPA said.
Paul Meller writes for IDG News Service