Why we need to beef up the law on spam

We need better legislation to restrict junk e-mail

We need better legislation to restrict junk e-mail

John Riley

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 last published in July 2000

Read more on E-commerce technology

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

By submitting you agree to receive email from TechTarget and its partners. If you reside outside of the United States, you consent to having your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States. Privacy

Please create a username to comment.