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The future of unsolicited commercial email in Europe could be decided in Brussels tomorrow as a key committee sits down to debate the issue.

Under existing European law the treatment of junk email - or spam - depends on the position already adopted by individual countries.

Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Italy have all signed up to an "opt-in" approach to spam, which should ensure that people only receive junk email if they request it first.

The other ten member states - including France and the UK - believe spam is a legitimate business activity. Their only concession is that users should be able to "opt-out" if they do not want to receive junk email.

Tomorrow's committee meeting will discuss whether Europe should adopt European Commission-backed proposals to introduce an "opt-in" policy to spam acorss all member states, or leave things as they are.

And because of the status of the Citizens' Rights and Freedoms, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, whatever it decides tomorrow is likely to be rubber-stamped by the full Parliament when it meets in the autumn.

Critics warn that leaving the current muddle of legislation as it is will hamper the development of online services and merely play into the hands of spammers. They also warn that spam will not just be restricted to email but also to the increasingly popular mobile message services.

Joe McNamee of the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA) said: "The proliferation of SMS spam is going to be a severe disadvantage to mobile ecommerce.

"Without an outright ban spammers can hide behind the confused legal situation in Europe," he said.

Those in favour of the status quo question whether any regulation - even at pan-European level - can curtail the spread of spam.

Labour MEP and former Eastenders soap star, Michael Cashman, who sits on the Citizens' Rights and Freedoms committee, believes a ban would have little effect merely driving the practise offshore.

"It would disadvantage EU-based businesses and advantage those businesses trading outside the EU," he said.

"Instead, we must give people the chance to unsubscribe, if they so wish, and to block spam.

"If we don't have the nous to develop software to block spam then the Internet will die under its weight," he said. ®

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