Attempts to combat spam, the scourge of e-mail users the world over, would be hampered if the U.S. fails to introduce an outright ban, said a senior European Commission official.
A law banning unsolicited e-mail messages comes into force in the 15-member European Union in the fall. The Commission Tuesday announced an initiative that aims to go even further in stamping out that activity.
The law prohibits e-mail marketers in the Union from sending their promotions to individuals unless those targeted have expressly asked to receive promotions.
The U.S. government appears to favor an opt out approach, whereby marketers can flog their wares to anyone by e-mail unless the person targeted asks to be removed from the target list.
Tuesday's initiative by the Commission, described as its "second step" in the spam war, seeks to promote international cooperation and to raise public awareness of how individuals can help in tracking the elusive spammers down.
By the end of the third quarter, spam will account for over half of all e-mail traffic in the E.U. and globally, the Commission said. One third of all spam is believed to originate from the U.S. French and Belgian data protection officials estimate that around 85 percent of all spam in their countries is in English.
Convicted spammers are known to hop from one jurisdiction to another in order to continue their activities, Erkki Liikanen, commissioner for enterprise and the information society, said at a press conference Tuesday.
"There is a growing awareness that you cannot tackle spam alone," he said. "We need to work with our international partners."
However, cooperation with the U.S. "would be restricted if we end up with an opt-out system in the United States," said Philippe Gerard, an official in Liikanen's department.
"The U.S. 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," Gerard said.
The Commission estimates that the loss in productivity due to spam cost E.U. businesses around EUR2.5 billion in 2002. Lost productivity includes the value of the time wasted clearing out spam from peoples' inboxes and the loss of performance from PCs clogged up with spam.
"If there was any cooperation with the U.S., it would only be in areas where we both agree action is needed," Gerard said. The deluge of harmless but annoying spam messages would therefore not become a common enemy, he added.
Liikanen refrained from criticizing the U.S. approach to combating spam. "The U.S. is seriously working on the issue. The (U.S.) Federal Trade Commission is looking for a solution," he said, but he added that he remains "skeptical" about an opt-out approach. "It will always be less efficient than an opt-in rule," Liikanen said.
Stefano Rodota, president of the Italian Data Protection Commission, said that even if the U.S. does choose the opt-out route, American businesses will go further to stamp out spam.
"A big part of the business community in the U.S. is moving towards opt-in because firms such as (consumer goods giant) Procter & Gamble view spam as a threat to their abilities to sell their products over the Net," Rodota said.
Europe's Internet service providers welcomed the Commission's latest efforts to fight spam. "The new rules on spam are a crucial tool in the ongoing 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 in a statement today.