Consumer watchdogs fail the Spam Test

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Internet consumers in Europe have been cheated and let down by the very organisations established to protect them, The Register has discovered.

Instead of standing up for consumers who use the Net and lobbying governments on their behalf, these so-called consumer groups have sat on their hands and effectively done nothing about the scourge of the Net, spam.

Disagreement over the approach to take means that some consumer bodies have no policy relating to unsolicited e-mail; the result is that the interests of ordinary Net users has not been truly represented.

The European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) has been singled out for the harshest criticism. Despite spam being a problem as old as email, Jo Dobber, of BEUC, admitted: "We don't yet have a detailed position on spam. This has yet to be discussed with our 29 members and a common position agreed."

Can this be right? How long do these people need to work out their "position", especially since it's a problem that has been discussed at country and European level since the mid 90s? Unlike junk mail and junk faxes (where the sender bears the cost of distribution) it is ordinary Net users who have to bear the cost of people flooding them with unsolicited e-mail.

You can bet your bottom Euro BEUC wouldn't sit on its hands if consumers had to pay the cost of postage every time junk paper mail landed on their doormat.

The problem, it seems, stems from which approach is best to tackle spam. Some groups favour an "opt-in" method - whereby consumers would not receive spam unless they specifically asked for it. Others favour an opt-out system, which would mean consumers would receive spam unless they asked not to receive it.

This small - but fundamental - difference has effectively rendered BEUC impotent on this whole issue and thanks to this impasse consumer groups have been left in limbo. Since its members can't decide which approach to adopt, BEUC claims it has no policy on junk e-mail. And because it has failed to draw up a single policy it has failed to lobby governments so that consumers are protected from this invasive and costly form of direct marketing.

George Mills, chair of the European Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (EUROCAUCE), said: "I am rather taken aback that BEUC hasn't taken a position on this.Their [BEUC's] dithering hasn't helped the legislative process," he said.

Yet BEUC is an outspoken Europe-wide federation made up of independent national consumer organisations. Its mission is to "influence, in the consumer interest, the development of EU (European Union) policy and to promote and defend the interests of all European consumers."

Despite taking a vocal stand on the high cost of mobile telephony, e-commerce consumer protection, and privacy and data protection, it has failed to lobby effectively on the issue of spam.

Many anti-spam campaigners are baffled by BEUC's stance believing that the problem of junk e-mail is a simple clear-cut consumer issue. And they claim BEUC and its member bodies should have been lobbying governments and European Union to stamp it out. But Mills doesn't believe there is any sinister motive behind BEUC's lack of action. He just thinks there is a "lot of confusion" among consumer groups.

Last month at an open meeting of the Telecommunications Directive which included an open debate on spam BEUC failed to put any case forward to influence European legislators.

Dominique Forest, of BEUC, who attended the event, defended the group's selective laryngitis, "On spamming our position has to be worked out - and this is indeed why BEUC was 'silent' on this specific issue," she said.

Which is odd, since last year BEUC did appear to express a position. In May last year issued a document discussing the topic: "unsolicited commercial communications by e-mail"? where it appeared to suggest that it would favour an opt-in model for spam.

A week later BEUC issued a second release welcoming the "requirements on Member States to establish opt-out registers" if people do not wish to receive spam.

From these two public documents it appears BEUC performed a U-turn on an issue on which it now claims it doesn't have a position.

BEUC was asked to comment more than a fortnight ago on this amazing turnaround but has so far failed to respond.

According to critics, BEUC, and its member consumer groups, have failed consumers and its muddled approach has only served to strengthen the hand of direct marketeers.

Joe McNamee, of the Internet lobbying group EuroISPA, said: "EuroISPA has difficulty understanding the position of the consumers organisations on what seems such a black and white consumer protection issue.

"It is very difficult to argue on a national or European level that consumers need to be protected against spam when the consumers' groups remain silent," he said.

Michelle Childs, head of policy research at the Consumers Association (CA) in Britain, defended her organisation's approach. She said that the CA had been "actively lobbying" government although she confirmed that the CA's position was "up in the air".

This apparent passiveness contrasts sharply with the CA's approach to junk faxes. By its own admission it has put pressure on the Data Protection Commissioner to clamp down on some of the worst offenders.

Campaigning journalist Liz Edwards of the CA's magazine Which?, said: "Companies who flout the law in this way are simply a nuisance. By exercising a bit of consumer power Which? readers and researchers have been able to help beat the junk fax firms."

So if the CA can work up a head of steam about junk faxes, why can't Which? muster the same kind of enthusiasm against spam, or is simply a question of double standards? Childs says part of the problem lies with British Net users who have failed to voice their opposition and concerns about spam.

Even though the CA has recently responded to a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) request for views on spam (as part of the delayed Distance Selling Directive), Childs says the CA could still be swayed. She claims that the CA currently favours (in an understated way you understand) an opt out method of spam, but could come round to the idea of an opt-in approach.

She told The Register that she would personally welcome any input from Net users on the subject. Progress at last? ®

  • You can contact Michelle Childs, Head of Policy Research at the Consumers Association, at here.

Related Links

The European Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email
Online Vote Against Spam - a campaign by c't magazine and politik-digital

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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