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Proposed US legislation designed to clamp down on the spam is only likely to make the problem far worse, according to a leading anti-spam activist.

Steve Linford, founder and director of the UK-based Spamhaus Project, a non-profit organisation that tracks the activities of the world's biggest spammers, warned that legislation currently going through congress would lend legitimacy to bulk mailing.

"The legislation Congress is considering would legalise opt-out spamming," Linford argued. "All the US spammers we track support the Bill because it means they wouldn't have to hide any more."

"If the US passes an opt-out law, which I believe is likely to happen by the start of next year, the spam problem would explode. Providing they don't use deceptive subject lines any one of 23 million small US business could begin spamming," he added.

E-marketeers need to seek permission of consumers before they send out commercial emails if the opt-in approach is followed. By contrast, under an opt-out approach a person would have to ask to be removed from a particular mailing list. The latter (far less strict) approach is favoured by the Direct Marketing Association and many of the most prolific bulk mailers currently in operation.

Spamhaus estimates around 200 individuals, most of whom are US-based, are responsible for around 90 percent of world's spam messages (or at least nine in 10 of those who can be traced, anyway). Several are based in Boca Raton, Florida, which has earned the unenviable reputation at the world's spam capitol.

Many of these spammers have "criminal records as long as your arm, and no intention to stop spamming whatever the law says", according to Linford.

However if legislators pass laws to "ban spam" then the problem can be driven underground and reduced to a level where technology can bring the spam nuisance down to manageable levels, Linford argues.

Linford made his comments at the Spam Summit, hosted by the All Party Internet Group at Westminster today, which debated the growing menace of spam email.

James Halpert, partner at US attorneys Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe, and a specialist in e-commerce and privacy, disputed Linford's analysis on the effect of proposed US legislation. Consumer activisists aren't going to get the right to sue spammers or the opt-in lists they want, but this doesn't mean the proposed US legislation will make matters worse, he said.

According to Halpert, the majority of the spam problem comes from fraudulent spammers attempting to hide their identity in a "cat and mouse" game with ISPs and "hacker criminals" using open proxies to spew out torrents of junk mail. Clamping down on these kinds of abuse - through enforcement of upcoming anti-spam Bills - will help deal with spamming, Halpert argues.

Both Halpert and Linford, along with other speakers, agreed that a combination of technical and legal measures is needed to keep the spam problem down to manageable levels. ®

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