As part of an assault on unsolicited commercial e-mail, better known as spam, a delegation of Members of Parliament will go to Washington, D.C., next month in an effort to persuade U.S. lawmakers to take a tough "opt-in" approach to spam.
The U.K. e-Envoy Andrew Pinder will join members of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group, including fellow members of parliament Derek Wyatt, Brian White, and Andrew Miller, for meetings October 13-16 on Capitol Hill with senators and other lawmakers, the group said in a statement on Monday.
European regulators have moved to adopt what is commonly known as opt-in antispam rules that prohibit e-mail 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, U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chair Timothy J. Muris warned that pending antispam legislation would be unlikely to stem the flow of unwanted e-mail.
"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 U.K. Department of Trade and Industry outlined a new directive scheduled to take effect on December 11. Under the new directive, which updates the current Telecoms Data Protection Directive, companies and individuals can be fined up to $8200 for sending unsolicited commercial e-mail and SMS text messages to mobile phones without prior agreement.
But the antispam law has already been heavily criticized by antispam 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 e-mail infrastructure has to cope with twice as much e-mail 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 because 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 U.K., an endeavor made that much more difficult if the U.S. protects those same people with opt-out antispam 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 bulk e-mailers to send spam, Allan said. When well-known spammers such as Alan Ralsky, considered by some to be the world's premier spammer, can make up to $22,000 per campaign, an $8000 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 U.S., 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.
Though both opt-in and opt-out spam laws have their limitations, the biggest argument against opt-out is that it is much harder to enforce the law itself. "The burden is much more on the recipient," Allan said. "What you've got to prove is that the spammers have received your instructions to not send you e-mails. There are ways for spammers to get around that."
Wyatt sees the U.S. as being one of the only countries gravitating toward opt-out spam laws.
"As 90 percent of all spamming e-mails originate in the U.S.A., we must try and persuade our political colleagues in Washington that their current opt-out system might just ensure that the Internet becomes blocked forever which will push up costs and act as a major disincentive to use," Wyatt said.
But if similar meetings held last July between U.S. legislators and European Parliament members are anything to go by, Wyatt and his colleagues may face polite but strong resistance to the notion of opt-in.
Erika Mann, a German member of the European Parliament and chair of the European Internet Foundation, said after the July meetings that she believed the U.S. and E.U. would strike an agreement to prosecute spammers across international borders, but any solid agreements have yet to materialize.
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 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. To do that, we need to discuss these issues in an international forum."