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Telecoms reform tabled as EU plots spam clampdown

Italy praised and UK shamed over enforcement

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The European Commission is calling on tougher action to fight spammers and protect online privacy.

A Commission-funded study found that enforcement action against junk mailers across the EU is inconsistent. It wants to see spam laws tightened up, alongside "clearer and more consistent enforcement rules", funds to support national privacy watchdogs and better cross-border cooperation.

Brussels securitycrats also want to see spammers and spyware slingers dragged into market squares, put in stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables to face tougher sanctions.

"Although since 2002, European law has prohibited spam and spyware, on average 65 per cent of EU citizens are still affected by spam on a regular basis," said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for information society and media. "We need to step up our fight against spammers and make sure that the EU adopts legislation that provides for strong civil and criminal sanctions against spammers. I call on EU countries to reinforce their national efforts to fight on-line privacy threats such as spam, spyware and malicious software."

An EU-funded study, published on Thursday, included an analysis of more than 140 enforcement cases from 22 Member States, and demonstrated big differences between in spam enforcement. The largest numbers of cases were reported in Spain (39), Slovakia (39) and Romania (20). The highest fines were imposed in the Netherlands (€1,000,000), Italy (€570,000) and Spain (€30,000). By contrast, convicted spammers in countries such as Romania, Ireland, and Latvia received paltry fines ranging from hundreds to several thousand Euros.

Zul ponts

From the point when national anti-spam laws were on the drawing board it was clear that Italy and The Netherlands, for example, had decent enforcement regimes while the UK's proposals had been watered down by direct marketing lobbyists. Experts like Spamhaus were ignored, and the UK ended up with a law that didn't apply to spam messages sent to business email addresses and existed without adequate enforcement.

The EU release lists the number of enforcement actions across 14 European countries. Britain doesn't merit a mention because there's nothing to report on spam prosecutions.

UK spammers have been prosecuted for other crimes carried out while spamming, but not for the act of simply sending out junk mail. For example, Peter Francis-Macrae - reputedly the UK's biggest spammer - was jailed for six years back in 2006 after he was convicted on a variety of charges, ranging from fraud and blackmail to making threats to kill.

United front

The battle against online threats is assisted by a combination of prevention, enforcement and raising public awareness. Regulators have the key role of coordinating efforts across borders and stimulating cooperation between public and private organisations.

The EU study found the level of cooperation differed markedly between different EU countries. Cooperation agreements exist in Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania and the UK, while Luxembourg and Malta, for example, rely on informal ties.

Reform of the EU's telecoms rules proposed by the Commission (under consideration by the European Parliament and the Council) aims to tighten up enforcement of privacy rules. According to these rules, "penalties for breaking national laws on online privacy should be effective, proportionate and dissuasive". Providing the rules pass, EU countries would also be obliged to allocate adequate resources to national enforcement authorities. The new rules also entitle ISPs to take legal action against spammers that abuse their networks.

Separately, the European Commission is negotiating an agreement with the US on cross border cooperation for the enforcement of consumer protection laws. Spam enforcement would form part of this agreement and is important, because industry figures cited by the EU suggest one in six spam emails are sent from the US.

More information on the study, including assessments of progress in each EU country, can be found here, and via links in a press statement here. ®

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