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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Anti-spam laws 'lack bite'
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

The UK Government's plans to protect people from spammers have come under fire for lacking bite and being hard to enforce.

Junk e-mails
Spam said to make up half of all e-mails sent
From 11 December, it will be illegal for UK companies to send junk messages to individuals unless they are already a customer or have given their permission. If they break the law they could be fined 5,000.

The spam watchdog, the Information Commissioner, has said the fine is not big enough to deter dedicated spammers who are causing the biggest problems.

Taking on the extra work the law brings will also require more co-operation between the watchdog, the internet industry and computer users.

Setting boundaries

Assistant Information Commissioner Phil Jones, told BBC News Online it is going to be hard to find the perfect regulatory process for unwanted electronic communication.

The law is not going to work on its own, but is a stab at setting ethical boundaries for the misuse of e-mail.

As the new regulatory powers will fall to existing teams within the Commissioner, they will have to rely on extra help from other organisations like internet service providers (ISPs) to play a key role.

We need all countries to implement anti-spam legislation banning spam so that we are then dealing only with a much smaller criminal element who wilfully flout the law
Steve Linford, Spamhaus Project
"We will be heavily dependent on information from them to identify sources of spam that appear to be within our jurisdiction," Mr Jones explained.

"We are not under any illusion that regulation is the answer, although regulation does have a part to play in enforcement."

Individuals and businesses will also have to take more technical responsibility to ensure they protect their inboxes.

Although the legal moves have been welcomed, there are other loopholes which anti-spam campaigners say could spell trouble when it comes to making the law effective.

Unwanted communication from outside the UK is not covered, and it only targets private e-mail addresses and not business to business e-mails.

But the government has not defined the difference between business and personal addresses, which could give spammers a defence if they do end up in court, say campaigners.

Critics claim this will make the regulatory power of the new rules ineffective and far from perfect.

Not least due to the fact that many companies will not yet be aware that they will not be able to use e-mail in get new customers any more.

Crossing continents

Anti-spam campaigner Steve Linford, of the Spamhaus Project, said the law would be almost impossible to enforce for an already overstretched commissioner, when 90% of spam comes from outside the UK anyway.

The commission admitted there could be a lot of extra pressure on them, which is likely to increase as the amount of spam does.

I don't think the supposed dedicated spammers are going to be quaking in their boots at the fine
Phil Jones, Assistant Information Commissioner
They expect a "significant number" of complaint calls, but will target their resources at persistent and big spammers in the first instance.

"You have to focus on the major transgressors, similar to fax spam. We can't follow up 1000 cases at once," said Mr Jones.

If it receives a large number of concerns about a particular type of message from the same organisation, it will look for evidence about its origins.

"If we discover a significant amount of spam coming from one particular address in a particular town or city, we would start the process with an enforcement notice being served on them," said Mr Jones.

"At that stage, someone can risk breaking the law if they continue."

To Mr Linford however, it is a green light for spammers to target all of the country until they get caught.

Those who tend to cause most annoyance are professionals who can change domains on a daily basis, making them almost impossible to stop.

It is generally accepted that the "major transgressors" will be from outside the UK, which is the biggest problem facing the Commission.

Mr Jones said it was easy to be pessimistic about regulation when faced with the notion that the net blurs jurisdiction and boundaries.

Deterrent effect?

The commissioner argues that to make any regulation effective, focus on prevention rather than cure of unsolicited e-mail is required.

The regulation alone will be about "forcing a degree of acceptable norms" and setting up formal deterrents.

"I don't think the supposed dedicated spammers are going to be quaking in their boots at the fine," said Mr Jones.

"We see regulation as being important for the formal badge of disapproval and reinforcing the grounds for industry cooperation."

Frustrated computer user
Spam annoys many computer users
It may only really deter UK businesses using electronic communication for "legitimate means", as they will not want to risk damaging their reputation with an enforcement order.

But a 5,000 fine is not going to deter many UK-based "spammers" who have no "brand" or clean-cut reputation to be concerned about, said Mr Linford.

Measures which ISPs, businesses, and individuals can take to protect themselves are more likely to have a practical impact than regulation alone, Mr Jones said, especially when faced with international spammers.

"Clearly this is going to bring a very real problem. The extent to which there is an answer will depend on what industries and governments are able to do acting together and acting in concert," he explained.

Until that happens on a global level, however, local regulation is unlikely to do much.

"We need all countries to implement anti-spam legislation banning spam so that we are then dealing only with a much smaller criminal element who wilfully flout the law," said Mr Linford of Spamhaus.

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