It reads like the plot of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. At first everyone was happy with the wonderful new invention which let people communicate with one another. Then, gradually, the volume of communication increased and wouldn't stop coming, eventually overwhelming people. Now people found they couldn't communicate at all. If only there was a fairy to sort out the mess they'd have time to absorb the trite moral of the story: 'be careful what you wish for'.

Officially email is still a great communication medium but in a few short months the industry has woken up to the nightmare possibility that left unchecked, people may eventually find themselves living this story for real. At least, this is what has been claimed. It is hard to distil what is going on from the sort of hype that afflicted Y2K, that other great supposed threat to computer users. A similar dynamic for telephone calls would have killed the phone service long ago (actually unwanted cold calling has become such a problem in the US that the FTC has been forced to set up a 'don't call me' list but let's not digress - Ed).

Whatever the truth, in the last year the world has suddenly become awash with high-level plans to sort out the spam menace, so much so it's getting hard to keep up with the almost monthly flow of new 'initiatives'. Among these various anti-spam proposals, however, a tension is starting to emerge between the efforts of law-makers to lock down spamming by imposing the principle of consumer 'opt-in', and the desire of large software companies such as Microsoft to merely regulate its flow. The last thing the Microsofts of the world want is a system so hostile to unsolicited email that they themselves can't send such communication to people who have not explicitly agreed to receive it.

Hot or cold spam?
Behind the headlines, this issue of how to define spam, and what counts as legitimate marketing, will be key. Think of spam as falling into two types, 'hot' and 'cold'. 'Hot' is the bad stuff that the anti-spammers are supposed to be stopping, the bulk email that clogs people's inboxes and renders email almost unusable if received in great enough quantity. 'Cold' spam is the email equivalent of cold calling or junk mail, where people try and sell consumers genuine products in a legitimate way - whether they want to be marketed to, or not, or course.

So what are the various agencies up to and to what end? Here we provide a potted but by no means exhaustive guide to the most important proposals.

'America is the centre of the universe': the US Senate
Action: After faffing about for almost five years with a welter of anti-spam proposals, the US Senate might finally be about to 'get serious' about the issue. The latest attempt is a proposal to the Senate Commerce Committee by Conrad Burns (Republican) and Ron Wyden (Democrat). Introduced as the 'Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003' or 'Can-Spam' for short, the bill would make it illegal in the US to use deceptive subject lines, make false promises in emails or employ fake email headers or return addresses. It passed its first committee stage in June. Others have suggested creating a 'do not spam' list similar in scope to the Federal Trade Commission's 'do not call' list which allows consumers to opt out of receiving cold calls from sales people (hang on - is that the phone ringing? Ed.).
Motivation: Getting your name on the bill that tackles spam. Now there's a good opening for the re-election pitch. Pressure from commercial interests irritated that low-life can make actually make the Internet pay.
Likely success? The Can-Spam bill is backed by Yahoo!, AOL and eBay so has commercial weight on its side, though that arouses some suspicion. Drafted to allow commercial entities to prosecute US-based spammers (individuals can merely complain), the bill looks set to hit the statute books at some point. Will pre-empt anti-spam laws already in the process of being passed by US states, though in many cases it will increase the possible penalties on offenders.
Our view: Fine for the US but what about everywhere else? US lawmakers still make the naïve assumption that what counts in America somehow counts everywhere. Spam is probably the one phenomenon that should make it obvious that this is no longer the case. On the other hand, US laws have a habit of educating the rest of the world. That makes the US law-making influential in countries that operate according to the rule of law. The US will probably hand more leeway for companies to send 'cold' (legit marketing) spam.
'Microsoft is the centre of the universe': Microsoft Corporation
Action: Law suits filed against 12 unnamed parties in Washington State (which already has anti-spam legislation of sorts), one in California and two in the UK. The charges range from attempts to harvest email addresses from Hotmail to sending deceptive emails, or emails with deceptive subject lines. One of the UK accused has publicly declared his innocence of the charge. The company claims that spam costs 2.5 Billion euros in lost productivity.
Motivation: Various possibilities. The company's Hotmail and MSN services are hardly likely to develop into a successful paid service while users - and their kids - are barraged with smutty and deceptive spam to mailboxes and user groups. Officially the company wants damages from the accused parties but sending a message to the bulk spammers looks a more likely motivation. Widely seen as a test case. The moment of truth probably came a few weeks ago when Bill Gates revealed that he had received a 'get rich quick' email. Microsoft has also been accused of wanting to head off calls to require consumer opt-in for email as a way of preserving its right to market to people.
Likely success? The company has said it plans to bring more cases in countries beyond the UK and the US. Microsoft has spent recent months lobbying US authorities to introduce tough anti-spam legislation so it can safely be assumed they're serious about championing the issue. In April, they also issued a joint anti-spam statement of intent with AOL and Yahoo. Microsoft has deep pockets and are likely to continue to chivvy the spammers until they leave the company's services alone or reduce their targeting at least. It is clearly determined to focus discontent and looks to be in it for the long term.
Our view: That Microsoft is prepared to team up with other industry players is significant. But is the company's concern to preserve the usefulness of email or maintain the right of large companies to send it without themselves being accused of spamming? We shall see.
Closer to home: the European Parliament
Action: Due to be incorporated into UK law later in the year, in May the European Parliament voted to accept the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive into law. The directive has a number of elements to it but in the case of spam it imposes the principle of 'opt-in' on electronic marketers for all future communications.
Motivation: Imposes some EU-wide standards to avoid the obvious pitfall of trying to patch laws at national level.
Likely success? Quite apart from the slippery problem of whether it will work, the directive (EU-speak for 'law') still has to be enacted by each member country, a process that can take from months to years. It's also not entirely clear what consumers in each country will have to do if they feel they are being spammed. ISPs aren't going to find it easy to deal with the issue, or if they do may end up receiving a lot of complaints. How does a consumer or ISP know whether a particular spam has originated from an EU-based server or not?
Our view: Fine in principle but will be difficult to police. Unlike the US, legitimate companies already ask for opt-in anyway so it won't make much difference to them. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the 'hot' bulk spammers will either move offshore or use EU-based spam hosting servers hijacked without their owner's consent.
In on the act: UK Government + The All Party Parliamentary Internet Group
Action: The government has been around the houses on this one in recent years, but has always stopped short of legislation for fear of stifling the potential of legitimate online marketing. More recently, the Department of Trade and Industry has closed a consultation period which had been looking at ways of incorporating proposed EU Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive (see above) into UK law. Legislation will enshrine the principle of opt-in for all email and SMS marketing originating in the UK. Meanwhile, the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG) held an enquiry into the spam issue in June.
Motivation: The government has to be seen to do something. Oh, and the EU is telling it to (see above).
Likely success? The problem with the legislative approach is that it can only hope to dissuade abuses by legitimate companies - the hardcore spammers, overwhelmingly outside the UK and the EU, will simply ignore it. Still, the Government and ecommerce minister Stephen Timms, can't be accused of not starting at square one.
Our view: It won't work of course but is probably better than nothing. We still want to know why earlier in 2003 the spam filter guarding Parliamentary mailboxes was reported to have started rejecting all emails composed in Welsh. Or perhaps that was a feature.
The one to watch: The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Action: Created the Anti-Spam Research Group (ASRG) to investigate a technical solution to the issue of spam. The group will focus on three areas: 'consent expression', 'consent enforcement' and 'source tracking'. The last of the three offers the best hope of making headway because it is only by being able to track down the true source of a spam blitz that the laws of a country can be brought to bear on the offender.
Motivation: Pressure from industry and law-makers.
Likely success? Excellent, assuming they don't settle down into a cosy routine of committee meetings and industry consultation sessions.
Our view: This is the one initiative that could have a long-term impact. Legislation is fine but by the time it becomes geographically wide-ranging and enforceable years will probably have passed and the Net will have been overwhelmed. The only solution, therefore, is a technical one and that will involve an overhaul of the open, trusted architecture that has underpinned email since it was invented three decades ago.
Bizarre footnote: Hormel Foods (the inventers and makers of 'Spam')
Action: Not against email spam as such but a company, SpamArrest, for using the word in its company name.
Motivation: Motivation: The company has grown tired of its product being associated with something downright irritating and nasty (bit late you might protest) or perhaps Hormel is just after some easy publicity.
Likely success? The lawyers will make a killing - expect the odd story as the case progresses. The one long-term effect of this case could be to dissuade people in the US from posting pictures of the company's tinned Spam when referring to the unwanted email phenomenon. Outcome: a compromise probably accompanied by waffly press releases about how they each respect the other's integrity and right to exist, blah, blah. Alternatively, Hormel will simply lose badly.
Our view: [On discovering that Hormel Foods has set up a museum of spam - see link below] They actually take school kids for day trips to a museum themed on the history of spam meat? Sitting them in front of a day's worth of bad cable TV would surely constitute a lesser abuse of parental trust.