Have you been on the Usenet lately? Probably not. Once the most functional of all the Internet channels, it has become a backwater. High among the reasons why is "spam" - unsolicited e-mail. Newsgroups are awash with postings, mainly porn, quack remedies and quick-bucks schemes.
Unless industry, government and users come up with a workable solution to spam, it could undermine the e-mail channel too - with far more devastating effects.
That is why the European Commission's (EC) proposal to outlaw unsolicited e-mail is welcome, despite the opposition this will provoke from the e-marketing community. The proposal for a European Union (EU)-wide "opt in" system directly contradicts the standing e-commerce directive that requires spam-weary users to register with an "opt out" scheme.
Spam is not just the e-equivalent of the junk mail that covers your doormat. With spam, the receiver pays. And every Internet host on a spam-mail's route to your inbox suffers from a cumulative theft of resources. Because it's cheap to the sender, spam allows scam-merchants and crooks to use the system in a volume that would be impossible with traceable, expensive snail-mail and fax.
Buying and selling unauthorised e-mail lists is already outlawed under the Data Protection Act - but the criminal penalties only kick in after an offender has been rapped on the knuckles by the Data Protection Commissioner. We are still awaiting the first high-profile "exemplary" punishment under the Act.
Those who say an "opt in" law will kill e-commerce are wrong. Trust is one of the key barriers to a mass e-consumer market. Unsolicited e-mail kills trust - especially in the home-based consumer market. Hence "permission marketing" - which is a sophisticated private version of the opt-in system - is already recognised as best practice by most e-marketeers.
The ruling could create further problems between the EU and the US - but the situation is not clear-cut on either side of the Atlantic. EU attitudes to spam have vacillated: meanwhile strong state-level anti-spam laws in the US have just been overruled in a federal court, and an anti-spam federal law is stuck in the system.
Balancing the rights of consumers and the needs of business to exploit the Internet for direct marketing is a legitimate task for the Government. But the Department of Trade & Industry had only worked its way to the consultation stage by the time the EC ruling was announced.
The Government should announce, now, its backing for a strong anti-spam law and ask e-business to forego the dubious benefits of unsolicited direct e-mail in favour of establishing wider consumer trust.
This was first published in July 2000