Euro vote threatens e-commerce confusion

The European Parliament has sidestepped an opportunity to harmonise the legal confusion surrounding unsolicited e-mail and the...

The European Parliament has sidestepped an opportunity to harmonise the legal confusion surrounding unsolicited e-mail and the use of Internet cookies.

E-commerce and Internet marketing companies are engaged in a war of words with privacy campaigners over whether Net users should opt in or out of receiving unsolicited email and having personal data collected from their PCs through cookies.

In a preliminary vote on 13 November, MEPs voted to leave the decision to European member states. This means organisations operating across Europe will have to consider how they send out e-mail marketing campaigns and use cookies to gather personal data. But the European Parliament gave no further clarification on the use of personal data, particularly when it is collected using cookies.

The UK has backed the opt-out clause, which means users have to tick a box on a privacy statement to avoid being sent unsolicited e-mail. But Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Germany are backing the opt-in clause, where users have to give their consent to receive unsolicited e-mail.

James Mullock, a partner at law firm Osborne Clarke OWA, described the decision as a "cop out". He said confusion would arise "if unsolicited e-mail is prompted by cookie activity, which sends an e-mail to an individual in one of the six countries with an opt-in clause".

"The directive should have harmonised the European position, but today [13 November] they decided not to give an authorities statement," he added.

Axel Tandberg, European Union affairs manager at the Federation of European Direct Marketing, was quick to claim the European Parliament vote for direct marketers.

"This decision is a victory for companies depending on targeted e-mail in their commercial communications strategy," he said. "It appears that the European Parliament recognises the difference between 'spamming' and targeted direct mail via e-mail."

Tandberg was disappointed, however, that the amendment limiting cookies was pushed through. "It means that Web sites will be unable to change ads attached to the site when a visitor returns to that site," he said. "Cookies allow Web sites to change ads and even limit ads to return visitors, so that they don't see the same old ads every time."

Francois Lavaste, European vice-president of Brightmail, a message management solution, said legal confusion across Europe could kill the direct marketing industry.

"This could be a nightmare," said Lavaste. "Companies will have to legally comply with each different state individually. The problems posed by this decision will make some companies feel that it is just not worth it.

"It will be a particularly hard time for project managers," he added. "The management of databases will be a nightmare. There will have to be a specialist customer database for each country, and companies will not be able to benefit from the economies of scale you get from a central database with one set of rules. At IT level you are looking at considerably more expense."

Direct marketing companies, information providers and e-commerce organisations are certain to start lobbying hard until the European legislation passes into the statute book next year.

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