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UK Govt fouls up anti-spam plans, say experts

No criminal sanctions. 'It's a cock-up,' says Spamhaus

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The UK Government's plans to tackle the spam nuisance have received a hostile initial response from industry experts.

Communications Minister Stephen Timms today outlined measures to update existing legislation to give phone and Internet users more control over how their personal details are used. The revised rules, which will come into effect on December 11, place the regulations outlined in the EC's Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications onto the statute books in this country. The directive obliged individual EC member states to introduce anti-spam laws by October 31.

The revised UK regulations will mean:

  • Unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) and text messages (SMS) to individual subscribers will need their prior agreement so that they may only be sent if the recipient has agreed in advance. The rule will not apply where there is an existing customer relationship.
  • A requirements for firms using cookies and similar internet tracking devices to "provide information" on their use and an opportunity for a user to refuse to accept cookies.
  • Network operators and their partners will be able to provide subscription and advertising services based on location and traffic data to their customers. There is no restriction on the type of services that may be provided as long as subscribers give their consent and are informed of the data processing implications.


The Government has also announced its intention to extend the Telephone Preference Service to corporate subscribers next year. This means that all businesses as well as individuals will be able to opt-out of phone marketing, a move backed by the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Communications Minister Stephen Timms said: "These regulations will help combat the global nuisance of unsolicited e-mails and texts by enshrining in law rights that give consumers more say over who can use their personal details."

Spam uncanned

Anti-spam firm Brightmail, which filters over 61 billion email a month for spam and stops over a billion spam a day, calculates that at least 50 percent of Internet email is spam. A large proportion of this spam is offensive pornographic material - 12 per cent - or criminal scams - 10 per cent. It welcomes the Government plans.

Brightmail's CEO, Enrique Salem, said: "Brightmail is eager to support the government in implementing this initiative - as only a combination of international co-operation, legislation, education of Internet users and spam blocking technology can halt the growth in spam and promote trust in the Internet."

However other spam fighters are highly critical of the Government's approach.

Messaging specialist Mirapoint points out that the UK government's proposals will do nothing to address the majority of spam, which comes from outside the EU.

Steve Linford, of the Spamhaus Project, argues that the measures actually legalise the spamming of British businesses.

"From 11 December it will be legal to send spam to the millions of hapless employees of British businesses (as long as each spammer gives each employee the opportunity to 'opt-out' of his individual spam campaign). Britain's firms will continue to suffer the onslaught of ever more spam, now from spammers claiming legality."

"Britain's much anticipated anti-spam law has been rendered toothless and will now do nothing to stop spam in the UK, instead it will actually create more confusion and misery for British businesses with spammers now insisting that spamming them is legal," he added.

Toothless tiger

The Office of the Information Commissioner will enforce the regulations, which were introduced today, and will come into force in 12 weeks time on December 11.

Any breaches of enforcement orders issued by the Information Commissioner will be a criminal offence liable to a fine of up to £5,000 in a magistrate's court, or an unlimited fine if the trial is before a jury. In addition anyone who has suffered damages because the regulations have been breached has the right to sue the person responsible for compensation.

Spamhaus' Linford is dismissive of this approach: "Spammers who ignore orders from the Information Commissioner can be fined up to £5,000. Therefore the cost of spamming all UK Internet users is now set at £5,000 payable only if you are caught and ignore an order."

He expressed disappointment in E-commerce minister Stephen Timms, who he thought had some grasp of the problem, and the Department of Trade and Industry, which has "cocked-up the UK's anti-spam law".

"Sadly it's now apparent the DTI were, like the American Congress, listening only to the lobby forces of the Direct Marketing Association," said Linford.

"Any legislation banning spam is a step in the right direction, it's a pity Britain decided to take such a baby step and cock it up in the process."

In contrast, Linford praised the Italian approach.

"Italy has enacted tough anti-spam legislation that makes spamming a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in jail with heavy fines for persistent spammers," he said. ®

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