Friday, August 27, 2004

Spam sham

There are possibly few more irritating things for regular internet users than the growing volume of spam which clutters in-boxes and increasingly wastes precious time as we struggle to deal with it.

But one thing that may be more irritating is the EU's fatuous efforts to deal with it – in the only way it knows how to deal with anything: making a new law.

Even though all the experts warned that a law would have no effect whatsoever, the EU persisted with its Privacy and Electronics Communication Directive, which it passed last July, and which members states were required to implement by October 2003.

And, precisely as expected, eweek magazine today reports that it has made no difference whatsoever. In fact, seven months after the law had supposedly come into force in all member states, spam volumes reaching new heights, up 67 percent from the month previously.

Part of the problem, of course – and entirely predictable - is that most junk e-mail does not originate in the EU. The US is by far the biggest generator, followed by South Korea. Germany, France, Spain and the U.K each send less than two percent of the world's spam.

But such has been the lack of enthusiasm for the new law that, six months after the deadline, more than half of the EU’s member states had not implemented the directive, states which included the normally law-abiding Germany, Finland and Luxembourg, as well as the usual culprits, France, Belgium and Greece.

Needless to say, the UK has implemented the law, and was one of the first to do so. And had Stephen O'Brien chosen this as an example of "gold plating", he could not have been criticised, as the UK went further than the EU law required - not that anyone is actually objecting.

However, the Information Commissioner's Office, which is responsible for enforcement, has no additional funds to chase culprits and in any case complains that the enforcement procedures as so circuitous as to be unworkable.

It cannot force spammers immediately to cease operations while investigations are carried out, which may take many months. To that extent, the law may be doing more harm than good as US spammers are relocating to the UK to take advantage of what amounts to a period of immunity from informal action while they are being investigated.

As most of them are fly-by-night companies, they can close down known operations and move on as the regulatory net tightens.

The result is what was always predicted. European internet service providers (ISPs) are taking their own measures which, in the final analysis, were always going to be the answer to the problem.

Last Wednesday, a coalition of 150 UK ISPs launched a campaign to target companies who host a Web site with a reputable ISP, while promoting themselves via junk messages on a different network or through a third party. They have little faith that laws can make a significant impact on spam, and believe that, as it is they who are in the front line, they can response more swiftly and effectively.

Nevertheless, nothing of this has any impact on the EU which is looking at strengthening its own laws, oblivious to the fact that its efforts are and will continue to be fruitless. After all, why let that minor detail spoil the opportunity to make another law.

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