Selling Blackpool to the Arabs in a spam desert storm

Sitting in my hotel room in sunny Riyadh, channel hopping between Arab-language TV stations, I was startled to see our very own...

Sitting in my hotel room in sunny Riyadh, channel hopping between Arab-language TV stations, I was startled to see our very own town of Blackpool offering itself to the desert as the "pearl of the English seaside" during the commercial break.

Somehow footage of the English seaside appears a little incongruous when it is squeezed in between vivid close-up film of the human carnage left behind in the ruins of Jenin.

However, advertising of this kind illustrates how the numbers game of cheap, mass communications technology of the satellite and the Internet is increasingly unselective and frequently intrusive. The belief is that if enough wealthy Arabs see the advert, some of them might reject the charms of the Cote D'Azur in favour of Blackpool this summer and make the exercise worthwhile. In much the same way, tens of thousands of gullible people fall prey to Internet advertising scams via junk e-mail every year.

Sifting through the usual unwelcome pile of pornography, loan offers and other garbage in my overloaded Hotmail inbox, I have begun to wonder how much further the US' constitutional right to advertise can go before people in the rest of the world decide they have had enough of being abused.

Even if we did protest, it is unlikely that anyone would take any notice. Stuck with a cripplingly slow connection to the outside world, I estimate that if I divided my hotel phone bill in half, assuming a 50/50 split between trash and legitimate mail, the privilege of being spammed cost me at least £10 a day in wasted connection charges to both my Hotmail account and my company e-mail.

Of course, with Hotmail you get Instant Messenger, which is a handy invention, although invariably it involves an uncomfortable compromise between what you might want from the service and what you are obliged to put up with. The key benefit is that, sitting in a desert hotel, I can spot my colleagues in the UKlogging on to their PCs and pass notes to them as if they were in the same room.

Even if we leave aside the distasteful side of unsolicited e-mail, there is little doubt that the problem is becoming worse as the delivery mechanisms become cheaper and more sophisticated. After all, you can sell what you like and make any claim or promise - as long as you are clever there is very little chance that you will be called to account by any law enforcement agency.

There is a side to the Internet that is starting to worry me. Any serious practical and moral debate over its future and security is almost exclusively driven by US laws and commercial interests.

Whether you happen to be watching its progress as a European or an Arab, I don't believe this is a healthy way to manage the development of the world's information super-highway because the very freedom that the neutrality of the Internet represents is also the weakness that threatens to compromise our faith in its future as a global communications medium.

Simon Moores is chairman of the Research Group www.zentelligence.com

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