Spammer in the works

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Series Details Vol.7, No.9, 1.3.01, p21
Publication Date 01/03/2001
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Date: 01/03/01

EU firms which use online direct marketing techniques to woo customers are squaring up for a cyber-war with Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen over his plans to rid the Internet of unsolicited 'spam' e-mail. Peter Chapman reports

FIRMS hoping to boost business using the Internet are trying to hit the delete button on a draft EU law which would stop them from e-mailing unsolicited bulk sales pitches.

But they may have a tough time of it, given the frustrating recent holiday experiences of Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen, who unveiled the measures last year as part of wide-ranging reform of telecom rules.

The Finnish enterprise chief says he spent hours during his break downloading unsolicited 'spam' on his computer, confirming his argument that industry-led schemes allowing consumers to opt out from receiving such messages had failed. He came back to Brussels more determined than ever to force companies to get permission from customers before they transmit bulk e-mail.

But firms that rely on direct marketing techniques to attract new customers are ready to wage cyber-war with the Commissioner.

Christiaan Weiland, director of public affairs with Time Warner Europe, claims the draft rules would damage companies that follow existing EU data-protection laws to the letter. "Data protection is the oxygen of the direct marketing business," he says. "If you put the barriers so high you suffocate the whole industry. It will severely restrict our ability to make first contact with the customer - which is vital."

Media conglomerates such as Time Warner claim they send highly targeted messages to potential consumers, whose names they get from specialist 'list-brokers'.

Axel Tandberg, director of regulatory affairs for the Federation of European Direct Marketing Associations (FEDMA), points to a recent study by France's La Poste that found 63% of e-mail users do not, in fact, mind receiving direct-marketing messages. He also says the draft rules would do nothing to thwart the peddlers of untargeted 'spam' - such as sex sites, miracle cures for impotence and get-rich-quick schemes - that often give users the biggest headaches.

"Spammers do not give a damn about the laws," Tandberg says. "Why do we need an extra layer of legislation? We should implement the rules we already have."

He argues that these unscrupulous e-mailers, who inundate computer in-boxes across the world with millions of messages a day, are flouting a litany of data protection rules - such as the EU's 1995 framework directive - by collecting the e-mail addresses of unsuspecting consumers.

One common, and illegal, tactic they use is to trawl Internet news groups for e-mail addresses, using false identities so they can't be tracked down.

The FEDMA executive also claims Liikanen's plan directly contradicts another EU law on e-commerce adopted last year that pushes member states to encourage the industry-backed 'opt-out' registers.

Hoping to galvanise support for the 'opt-in' plan, last month the Commission released a headline-grabbing study which found that downloading unsolicited messages costs consumers across the world €10 billion a year. But the report only served to rile industry groups already beginning to count the cost of the threatened legislation.

Simon Hampton, regulatory affairs expert for AOL Europe, says the Commission study is based on the unlikely assumption that 150 million US consumers included in the study are paying metered connection charges for their Internet access. He also says the data were calculated on the basis of slow, out-of-date '28k' modems.

And he puts forward another key industry argument: that the way to protect consumers from the high costs of spam is to ensure lower Internet connection charges. Hampton says the EU would be better served by forcing down connection costs - something it is already trying to do (see below).

Fighting alongside the Commission in this battle are Internet service providers and consumer lobbies. Consumer data privacy expert Machiel Van der Velde claims an effective 'opt-in' regime would boost industry credibility - and increase the confidence of consumers afraid to venture on line for fear of alerting potential spammers to their address. "People should not be bothered by stuff that they did not want in the first place," he says. "It would be good if nothing happened unless I clicked a box saying I wanted to receive something. That would enhance confidence in e-commerce."

Van der Velde admits that the directive would not stop spam emanating from the US, Far East and Eastern Europe. "But at least it will make it harder for EU consumers to be 'spammed' by EU firms," he insists.

The Commission vs Industry Spam War is about to infiltrate the European Parliament and Council of Ministers.

Italian independent MEP Marco Cappato, rapporteur-elect on the issue, held a hearing in January but the assembly is still focussing only on Liikanen's other telecoms proposals.

Governments are likely to be split on the issue between those who claim the e-commerce directive should take precedence and others - such as Austria, Denmark, France and Germany - that already have opt-in rules.

Major feature. EU firms which use online direct marketing techniques to woo customers are squaring up for a cyber-war with Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen over his plans to rid the Internet of unsolicited 'spam' e-mail.

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