As part of an assault on unsolicited commercial email, better known as spam, a delegation of British MPs will go to Washington, DC, next month in an effort to persuade US lawmakers to take a tough ‘opt-in’ approach to spam.
The UK e-Envoy Andrew Pinder will join members of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG), including Derek Wyatt MP, Brian White MP and Andrew Miller MP, for meetings on Capitol Hill with Senators and other lawmakers, the group said in a statement yesterday.
European regulators have moved to adopt what is commonly known as opt-in anti-spam rules that prohibit email marketers from sending promotions to individuals without their prior consent. Lawmakers in the U.S. have expressed a preference for the ‘opt-out’ method where the onus is put on individual users to let companies know that they do not wish to receive spam.
But last month, US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Timothy J. Muris warned that pending anti-spam legislation would be unlikely to stem the flow of unwanted email.
"Opt-out is a terrible, terrible mistake and if we can't come to an agreement on dealing with spam, I think the Internet will seize up next year, not unlike the electricity blackouts in New York earlier this year," Wyatt said.
The announcement of the MPs' trip to Washington, comes hard on the heels of the U.K.'s latest effort to stop, or at least slow down, the tide of spam.
On Thursday, the UK Department of Trade and Industry outlined a new directive scheduled to take effect on 11 December. Under the new directive, which updates the current Telecoms Data Protection Directive, companies and individuals can be fined up to £5,000 for sending unsolicited commercial email and SMS text messages to mobile phones without prior agreement.
But the anti-spam law has already been heavily criticized by anti-spam groups like the Spamhaus Project, claiming the law doesn't go far enough to protect businesses as well as individual e-mail users.
According to Gartner analyst Anthony Allan, the market researcher's corporate clients have mostly taken a technical response to the problem of spam. "The bottom line is a company's email infrastructure has to cope with twice as much email than it needs to, so while they do believe that spam should be illegal and that spammers should be punished, legal measures are not seen as the most effective way to deal with the problem," he said.
There is a huge financial benefit for corporations to deal with spam directly as the technical solutions pay for themselves, Allan said.
It is an option that may just prove too expensive for individual users, which is why the new law may be a good starting point for dealing with spam, Wyatt said.
But the new law also poses the additional problem of tracking down and imposing fines on those sending spam from outside of the UK, an endeavour made that much more difficult if the US protects those same people with opt-out anti-spam laws.
"It is not clear how the enforcement of the law will work," Allan said. "There is a great deal of publicity around the fact that action is being taken and I believe there will be successful prosecutions this time next year. But the effectiveness of the law over the whole range of spammers and e-mail users in the next year is going to be minimal."
There needs to be a disincentive for spammers to send spam, Allan said. When well-known spammers such as Alan Ralsky, considered by some to be the world's leading spammer, can make up to US$22,000 per spam campaign, an $8,000 fine won't be much of a deterrent. "It is like people who pay parking fines because it is easier than paying parking fees," he said.
Some spammers will go to any length to ensure the money keeps rolling in, including opening offshore shell headquarters for their businesses while continuing to operate out of places like the US, or increasingly China.
"The response rates to spam is low, somewhere between 1 and 0.125 percent, but that's enough to make a huge amount of money. The best laws will only have a partial effect in stopping spam," Allan said.
Derek Wyatt is convinced that there has to be a concerted and coordinated worldwide effort to stop spam. "I think we need a new arrangement like what happened with telephones and stamps, where world bodies were started to agree on global pricing," he said. "In terms of dealing with spam, we are in the spotty teenager stage, but we will grow up and to do that, we need to discuss these issues in an international forum."