The UK government should take a tougher stance on spam by tightening loopholes in an anti-spam law coming into effect in December, said an influential group of MPs.
The All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG) said that the proposed laws would have little effect on preventing businesses' inboxes being filled with spam and said that "the DTI has made a very serious mistake in not prohibiting unsolicited business-to-business e-mail." But they conceded, however, that UK and European laws would ultimately have little effect on combatting the worldwide problem of spam.
MPs in the group including Richard Allan and Brian White, released a report alerting the government to potential problems in its law. "We're not expecting the government to change the legislation at the moment but rather to recognise there are loopholes that need to be blocked at a later date," said Allan prior to the group's meeting with E-Minister Stephen Timms.
Updating the current Telecoms Data Protection Directive, the new law seeks to impose fines of up to £5,000 on companies and individuals caught sending unsolicited commercial e-mail and SMS text messages to mobile phones. The law, which takes effect on 11 December, applies only to spam sent to individuals over personal accounts and not company e-mail accounts, according to the DTI.
The group has called on the DTI to explicitly ban the sending of spam to business addresses. It also urged the DTI to establish a system for what it called "super complaints," or class action responses to spam, where organisations acting on behalf of e-mail users would be able to ensure that spammers could be brought to account before the courts.
Stressing that the government could only do so much to combat spam with legislation, the members of APIG recommended that ISPs (Internet service providers) develop blocklists of spammers, specifically, mechanisms for the release of statistical information that could then be used to assess the level of damage being done by particular spammers.
But despite the efforts, some question whether the UK and the European Union can really do much to stem the flow of spam. "There were lots of recommendations from APIG and some ideas like the blocklist are interesting, but the problem is worldwide and therefore needs worldwide legislation and cooperation," said Alyn Hockey, director of research for e-mail filtering company Clearswift.
The main problem with anti-spam laws in the EU and UK is one of enforcement, Hockey said. Since the large majority of spam originates in the US, Southeast Asia and South America, laws that are only binding on European countries won't have much reach. Furthermore, though Europe favours "opt-in" anti-spam rules that prohibit e-mail marketers from sending promotions to individuals without their prior consent, US lawmakers are tilting towards the "opt-out" method where the onus is put on individual users to let companies know that they do not wish to receive spam.
"Opt-in versus opt-out are two brick walls facing each other and unless the US takes an opt-in approach, the European laws will be ineffective," Hockey said.
The members of APIG conceded on Monday that anti-spam legislation cannot be effective without the support of US law. "Our (European and U.K.) legislation is based on Data Protection laws, which are robust in the EU. That is not the case in the US and that is a problem," Allan said.
Governments and industry have to work together globally if the spread of spam is to be slowed down, but there are things the UK. could do to make its laws at least somewhat effective on the external side, he said. Laws could be strengthened to make sending spam a conspiracy to defraud with criminal repercussions. For example, the Computer Misuse Act could be extended to target spammers who use e-mail accounts as "Trojan horses" to hide the spam's place of origin. "We could take action in the US and extradite people if necessary," Allan said. But he acknowledged that would be a difficult and expensive option.
Therefore the group is taking its case directly to Capitol Hill. Next week, the UK e-Envoy Andrew Pinder will join members of APIG for meetings with US senators and other lawmakers in Washington, DC. "We want to make US lawmakers aware that when people use .com it impacts people outside of the US," White said.
Though Clearswift's Hockey welcomed the APIG trip, he is less than convinced the MPs would be able to influence their American counterparts. "It's going to be an interesting head-to-head debate and it'll be interesting to find out what (APIG) is going to say afterwards. Maybe I'm just unfairly expecting the worst, but it does seem like they'll hit a brick wall," Hockey said.
The MPs themselves are all too aware that they may receive a chilly reception in the US. "Spam is damaging e-commerce across the globe. We're not saying we have the right solution, we're saying that we need to find one," White said.