Sides deadlocked over bid to thwart ‘spam’ mail-shots

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Series Details Vol.7, No.29, 19.7.01, p18
Publication Date 19/07/2001
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Date: 19/07/01

By Peter Chapman

SPAM will be on the menu for MEPs and diplomats this autumn as they thrash-out positions on data privacy proposals which critics say could have a chilling effect on e-commerce. At issue is a clause forcing all direct marketing companies sending out mail-shots electronically to get prior permission from the would-be customer.

The measure - chiefly designed to stop the onslaught of unwanted 'spam' e-mails - is part of a draft directive on data protection in electronic communications launched last year by telecoms chief Erkki Liikanen.

Italian radical party MEP Marco Cappato said he wants to shoot-down the rules when the issue is debated in the Parliament in September. Cappato - whose report was backed by the citizens rights and freedoms committee - says the law would contradict existing EU legislation on data protection agreed in 1995, which gives member states the choice of whether or not to impose the measure known as an 'opt-in'.

His report also calls for specific measures to combat disreputable firms that lie about their identity in a bid to gain the confidence of customers. This is a common practice of the 'spammers' who are held most responsible for clogging-up e-mail 'in-boxes' by sending messages indiscriminately to anyone whose address they can find.

Cappato's view is shared by the UK and France, whose opposition has ensured the deadlock. Meanwhile talks on the issue fizzled out at last month's telecom ministers meeting in Luxembourg. If MEPs' and diplomats' taste buds are not excited by Cappato's report the prospect of another EU-US trade row on the issue could just spice up the debate.

US firms are likely to make a beeline for Brussels after internal documents suggested the Commission was gearing up to apply the law beyond the EU's boundaries to countries that do not impose an opt-in. The 'question and answer' paper on the issue said the EU would cite the World Trade Organisation's General Agreement on Trade in Services to impose its opt-in regime outside of the bloc.

That could mean fines and other punishment for company directors of New York firms who send sales pitches to EU customers without getting prior permission. US government sources said they could not comment on whether the EU was ready to re-open a new front with the Americans on data privacy.

But the reports are already raising temperatures in the US, where businesses are already struggling to meet the terms of the EU's general data privacy rules.

Article forms part of a survey on e-commerce.

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