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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 18:03 GMT
Return to sender: Should spam e-mails be banned?
The European Parliament is taking action against cookies, the small text files that many websites use to monitor internet traffic.

Euro-MPs have voted to accept an amendment to a draft privacy bill that would block the placing of cookies on users' computers without their permission.

The bill would also prohibit unsolicited commercial messages or "spam" to phones, faxes and possibly e-mail.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) claims the ban could cost British companies 187m, as online adverts become less effective and advertisers re-think marketing strategies.

Is the European Parliament right to be considering banning cookies and "spam" e-mails? Is it sufficient that e-mail software features a "block sender" facility? Or should all junk mail be banned?

This Talking Point was suggested by Laurence, United Kingdom:

Is it right for the European (or indeed any) parliament to be considering banning 'spam' emails? Sending a spam email is equivalent to posting a leaflet through someone's door - if you don't like it throw it in the bin. Should this be illegal too? Most email software has the facility to block certain senders - which is more than your letterbox can do. Isn't that sufficient?

If you have any suggestions for Talking Points, please click here.

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Spammers do not do it for charity

Ron Levy, UK
People - wake up! YOU are the ones who can stop junk e-mail stone dead. Simply do not under any circumstances respond to it or browse sites referred to therein and it will go away. Spammers do not do it for charity, they do so because it works. This is just another example of where the "public" are their own worst enemy.
Ron Levy, UK

It would be superb if spam was made illegal but companies using spam tactics should realise that they are not doing any good for their company image. I would never purchase anything from a company that spams.
Kristoffer Lawson, Finland

I think the EU's tough legislation on spam e-mails and secret tracking cookies has been very well crafted. It means that while web site operators like myself can still use cookies to automate tasks like user login, marketing companies can't invade my privacy by secretly putting web usage tracking cookies on my computer
Malcolm, UK

Great idea - but that's all it would be. I'd love to see anyone try and stop a spammer sending mail. It's a timely process finding the origin of a spammer although not impossible, however I would rather police spend their time on putting real criminals through the courts than spending hours tracking down someone who sent a few emails out. There are many tools available to block spam to install into your PC, Email client programs can filter out the majority and if the ISP's took it more seriously spammers would be a thing of the past.
Matthew, UK

You can set up rules to trap spam in any decent email software

Andy Proyer, UK
You can set up rules to trap spam in any decent email software - by looking for certain words or phrases in the body of the email, or banning email from a particular domain. You can do more than just banning a particular email address. Microsoft Outlook allows you to filter and move messages based on virtually any criteria.
Andy Proyer, UK

The biggest problem with spam is that you get so used to 75% of your email being spam that you occasionally end up deleting some real mail thinking that its spam. However so long as spam is easily identifable, has a real email address, takes notice of an electronic equivalent of the mailing preference service, is of a reasonable size and suitable for family viewing, I see no reason to reduce the advertisers freedom by curtailing it. Given the minimum cost of a phone call is 5p, most spam is downloaded for free anyway.
Brian Blackmore, UK

Spam mails should be made illegal. I work for an ISP and just last night 30,000 spam mails were sent from one of our customers machines, by a spammer who has basically broken into their computer and generated these mails. This is how most spam is sent. Drawing a parallel with postal junk mail, it's the equivalent of a company stealing 30,000 envelopes and stamps from you then using them to distribute their advertising. There should be VERY heavy fines. I'll now spend the next day clearing up this mess whilst the spammers continue to do their dirty work.
Max Lock, UK

We already have the Telephone Preference Service in this country, so that if you don't want telesales calling you, you can sign up, with high financial penalties for one who calls you by mistake. Why not have an equivalent for e-mail? Most spam can be traced with sufficient effort - if the spammers get charged 5,000 for every complaint they'll quickly find it uneconomical. Pity it'd require international co-operation to work, though.
Chris M, UK

I don't mind having to delete spam but I do mind having to pay for it

Patrick, England
Unlike physical junk mail, a spammer pays next to nothing to send tens of millions of unsolicited mails, while the rest of the internet world has to pay higher subscription fees so ISPs can cope with the disproportionately large load spam places on the internet. I don't mind having to delete spam but I do mind having to pay for it.
Patrick, England

Should spam and junk mail be banned? Well, of course they should but will we approach the problem intelligently? No, of course we won't. When do we ever?
Margaret, Canada

I regularly get a message from my ISP saying my mailbox is too full, yet they do nothing to help filter out the spam that is filling it up! Perhaps ISPs could help block persistent offenders and at least help us cut down on SPAM.
A. Walker, England

Working in the magazine business we get more than our fair share of it. At work it just gets the word "JUNK" prefixed onto it by our IT department so we can delete it without even looking at it. At home it's not so simple. I subscribe to newsletters on one e-mail address but get all the spam on the other, so blocking and deleting doesn't cost that much if you use web-based email. Yes ban it - but be ready for the next scam.
Ken, UK

Surely there are more important things to worry about!

Laura, UK
It is true that SPAM e-mails are annoying, but they can be blocked and there is always the delete button. Surely there are more important things to worry about!
Laura, UK

I am all in favour of blocking spam faxes. Unlike junk mail delivered through my letter box these appear on paper I have paid for and are getting so bad that I am considering switching off my fax machine altogether.
Gill, UK

Yes ban it and prosecute those sending it .... if you can find them. Most SPAM is sexual or derogatory in some way - the majority of people who have email do not want to receive this sort of stuff. The trouble is finding the culprits, the senders are sophisticated and with free email services like hotmail, they have plenty of portals to send rubbish from.
F Webb, UK

If one does not expect a message from a given sender, email software cannot block it. At best, only the second and subsequent spams from a given sender can be blocked. Spams where a sender uses a different sending address will not be blocked. Even if blocked, the spams will continue to clog networks and to consume our connection charges and resources. Spam and 'opt-out' spam place the bulk of the costs and effort on recipients. Ban spam!
Denis, Ireland

I'd much rather the effort went into blocking the physical spam that piles up under my door in the morning. At least with e-mail, filters can be set-up client or server side to prevent unwanted mail. Companies who operate mostly on-line should not be penalised just because it's easier to do so in comparison to companies that drop large amounts of Brazilian rainforest through my door.
Dominic Roberts, UK

I don't throw my normal junk mail away - I send it all back to the sender in the handy pre-paid envelope that they provide

Edward, UK
I don't throw my normal junk mail away - I send it all back to the sender (including the envelope) in the handy pre-paid envelope that they provide. They can get rid of their own rubbish. Sadly, this doesn't apply to spam. The only answer is to make people pay for e-mail - after all, normal mail is not free. In that way, most of the propagators of this abusive and distracting offence will just curl up and die, while the rest will consider rather more carefully their target market.
Edward, UK

Can someone explain to me why I'm more likely, or even as likely to buy a service on the 16th time it turns up in my inbox, rather than just the first? In the interests of commerce, I can just about live with getting something once, but more than once makes me annoyed enough to trace that persons ISP and complain.
Simon, UK

It's about time something was done about spam e-mail. I get letters at home, phone call at all hours of the night, and now I'm bombarded by e-mails telling me that I need this or that. We suffer far too much advertising in general. When I turn on the TV, I see adverts, every bus that passes me has adverts, even phone boxes and train tickets have adverts on them. Perhaps we should limits adverts in all media, not just e-mail!
Rob Phillips, Wales

Whilst we are at it can we also ban door-to-door salesman, telephone canvassers and Jehovah's Witnesses?
Andrew, Newcastle, England

This legislation is simply a waste of parliamentary time and money. Browser software already gives users the opportunity to be prompted before cookies are placed on the users disk. Spam email is no different from receiving a leaflet through your door except that it is a more efficient and environmentally friendly way of doing business. A blanket ban on spam would deprive us all of some of the benefits associated with electronic commerce.
Martin, UK

It's about time someone passed a law banning politicians from creating legislation for areas they clearly have no understanding of

John Harding, Wales, UK
Banning spam would be a good thing. Unlike the leaflet through the door you are forced to spend time downloading this rubbish and so increase your phone bill. However the bureaucrats suggesting the banning of cookies are just showing their ignorance of technology. Yes they can be abused but their usefulness far outweighs the miniscule privacy dangers. It's about time someone passed a law banning politicians from creating legislation for areas they clearly have no understanding of.
John Harding, Wales, UK

If only more e-mail software had the right blocking options, we could ban it ourselves. Junk snail-mail should have been banned years ago too, if there are to be any trees left soon.
Mel, UK

Simply having a "Block Sender" facility is not enough! SPAM generating software gets around this by producing a unique email address for the FROM field for every email it sends out. I had to shutdown my Hotmail account recently because I was receiving 50 SPAM emails a day! Enough is enough, ban them all!!
Mark R, UK

I don't mind receiving offers but I do object to the endless offers via e-mail from America that only US citizens can take up. If the "spammers" can't be country specific they should give up because at the end of the day it gives "spam" that I do actually want to read a bad name and I end up creating an inbox called junk and deleting it without reading it.
Annwyl, UK

Spam should definitely be banned

Rhys Jaggar, England
Spam should definitely be banned. In addition, those companies who have used cookies to date should each be fined 10% of their net profits for the past 3 years as compensation for illegally gathered information and criminal invasion of privacy. The money raised should be used to provide internet infrastructure to the third world. Harsh? Yes. A lesson in proper manners? Undoubtedly. But destructive to the executives responsible? Hardly.
Rhys Jaggar, England

This is a rather academic question; the lack of boundaries on the Net means that even if spam is banned, how will the ban be enforced? A spammer may reside in any country.
Georgie Godby, UK

Firstly - spam is not 'equivalent to posting a leaflet through someone's door' because you have to pay to receive spam. If you were charged every time you got a piece of junk mail through your door then people would be up in arms and debating its legality. If companies want to waste money sending out junk that is one thing. Companies sending out stuff that I have no option not to receive yet which costs me to do so - that is wrong.
Faith, UK

Spam is only spam if you can't unsubscribe from it

Sandra, UK
Spam is only spam if you can't unsubscribe from it. I have never received anything from anybody that I haven't signed up for. If you submit your details to a website then you usually have a choice of receiving e-mails from affiliated/parent companies. If people choose not to read the site fully, it is their own fault. If you don't want to carry on receiving stuff, unsubscribe from the mailing list. It has worked for me plenty of times.
Sandra, UK

I hate spam e-mail. As a website designer I tend to receive lots of mail every day. People/companies that send spam know what they are doing. It's not as easy to just block the address they are being sent from. They use constantly changing address or randomly generated addresses.
Chris Gunton, UK

Leaflets through the letterbox are usually pretty innocuous - there are laws against posting indecent material. But much of the spam I get is filthy and I would welcome any move to ban it. It's hugely intrusive and sometimes upsetting. Why should anyone have the right to send that to complete strangers? A free-for-all online is fine if people regulate themselves, but they don't, so the Government should do it for them.
Klara Feigert, UK

Spam is irritating at best, offensive at worst

Denise Ryecroft, Sussex, UK
I'm a 15 year old girl. I don't have any debts that need consolidation, I don't want to buy a University degree, I don't want to work from home, I don't want to get Viagra over the Internet and I certainly don't want to see 'Lusty Lucy' get her kit off! Spam is irritating at best, offensive at worst. I for one would whole-heartedly welcome a ban.
Denise Ryecroft, Sussex, UK

No, that isn't sufficient. Spammers often use false data in their sendings, and change it from message to message. And is a common error to consider spam like postal leaflets... In that case, the cost of the leaflets and their distribution are charged to the company who wants to publicize. In spam, the costs are for the ISP that distributes it (often without their consent) and for the people that receives it. And for all the people that see their bandwith reduced due to millions of unsolicited e-mails crossing each day the Net. I don't want spam in my mailbox (that, btw, has a limited size), so I will appreciate very much any legal measure against it.
Ernesto Rodriguez Ageitos, Spain

How am I supposed to demonstrate email to my parents when it's like this?!

Richard, UK
Spam emails should definitely be banned. I have an email address that is useless now, what with 50-plus debt or porn emails every day. How am I supposed to demonstrate email to my parents when it's like this?! We'll just end up with servers all over the world full of junk - and what use is that to anyone?
Richard, UK

One obvious difference between physical leaflets and "virtual" e-mails is that there is an actual cost involved in printing and delivering the leaflets. One consequence of this is that the leaflets tend to be somewhat targeted, whereas I keep getting Spam e-mails about mortgage rates in the US etc. The spammers tend to compile the largest possible list of email addresses and send their material indiscriminately.
Peter, UK

Unsolicited commercial e-mail is a considerable nuisance, especially if you post to usenet a lot and your address gets on all the lists. However I don't see a law stopping it. They tried that in the States and the only result is that all the UCE from the states is prefixed with a lie about how it's a response to your enquiry. Most of the UCE I get these days, by the way, seems to come from Taiwan and is apparently in Kanji. Cookies are another issue entirely. There's a lot of paranoia about cookies. A cookie does no more than allow you to have a dialogue with a web site (possibly over a long period). A cookie doesn't allow a site to grab information you don't give it.
Malcolm McMahon, York, UK

Ban the lot as far as I'm concerned

Kenny, UK
Excellent news. I'm sick and tired of getting junk email, junk snail mail and junk SMS's. Ban the lot as far as I'm concerned.
Kenny, UK

Couldn't agree more. There's nothing more frustrating to find a dozen emails or more, asking if I want to buy junk, or advertising porn websites. Thankfully, Hotmail has got it right, and put in a 'Junk Mail' folder, to filter most of this out.
Ray, UK

Perhaps we could have a register, like for telephones. So once registered it would be illegal for you to be spammed. I would far rather like to see an end of double-glazing salesman/free-trial-in-our-restaurant-for-20 types who come to bother me at home.
Andrew J. Chisholm, UK

It should be quite easy for some clever programmer to give the user the option of only letting through mail from addresses the user allows. Then there would be little need for a ban.
Jeff, USA

About time these time wasters were banned. I have the right not to have my email polluted by spam (and I would support a ban on posted junk mail too). All forms of junk mail waste my time. If it isn't banned then at least all junk mail should be marked clearly so that one can remove/bin it easily.
Sat Sandhu, United Kingdom

When does spam become spam?

Richard L., UK
Cookies are already optional on most PC browsers [tools->options->security] so what's the point? Also, when does spam become spam? If I send an e-mail to fifty people who may be interested in a certain subject, am I spamming them?
Richard L., UK

I just want to make the point that banning cookies is amazingly damaging to a whole host of Internet based industries that use cookies to reward sites with interesting content that provide links to sites that sell things. The loss of this revenue will mainly damage the smaller content sites that often have the most interesting things to say. Cookies are protected from going across websites so only the site you access is able to read the cookie back next time you visit.

Third party cookies are generated when an element of the site (normally a picture) is linked from the main site to a third party provider to enable cross site tracking of that user. The banning of transferring individually identifiable information in the link request to this third party would be a much more targeted and effective manner of enforcing privacy, as would raising minimum standards for privacy policies. A very similar technique is used by credit reference agencies where cookies are replaced by credit card numbers, maybe the EU should look in to these concerns first as the actual invasion of privacy that these agencies cause is FAR more worrying.
Rob Read, U.K.

Laurence has the analogy the wrong way around. The equivalent of spam when thinking of leaflets through the door is for the leaflet poster to then charge the cost of delivering it, or perhaps the Royal Mail insisting on the recipient paying the first class stamp costs. Opt in lists are the only way to go, but I doubt any Euro legislation would work without the equivalent legislation in the US. As a first step we should at least outlaw the forged addresses they use. My home ISP at the moment is suffering from the spammers forging some customer addresses in the reply-to section. This means that blocking senders doesn't work since they just use another forged address next time.
Graham, Scotland

Banning cookies is not a good idea - many websites rely on them to remember who you are when you return. Spam on the other hand is a nuisance. Unlike postal spam, I have to pay to receive e-mail spam, which goes against the grain somewhat. Unfortunately making it illegal won't help much as much spam comes from abroad anyway, and is not easily traceable.
Chris Cowdery, UK

It is akin to having to drive to the post office to collect junk mail

Ian, UK
The big difference between a leaflet through your door and spam e-mail is it that spam costs you money through time wasted downloading it. It is akin to having to drive to the post office to collect junk mail. The sooner it goes the better (and can we get rid of junk mail and telephone calls as well please)
Ian, UK

No, blocking certain senders won't work. The junk-mailers routinely forge their e-mail addresses to get round this kind of filtering - and at the same time demonstrating that they know that they are annoying people, but simply don't care.
Neil, United Kingdom

I think that any form of unsolicited advertising is irritating and invasive. This includes junk e-mails, (or spam, as I believe it is called) text messages, and the growing practice of telephoning people at home after 6pm in the evening, when all we want to do is switch off after a hard days work. I do respect the point of view that this is an increasingly competitive global economy, but there has to be a limit to the amount of advertising that is thrown at us against our free will.
Jack Burge, UK

Yes, stop the Spamming now. The comparison between them and a leaflet doesn't stand. A leaflet does not interrupt what you're in the middle of doing nor force itself on your attention in the same way.
Andrew Cover, UK

Yes spam should be banned. I have an email address which I use specifically in situations where I know my email address will get passed to the spammers and it gets bombarded with up to 50 spam mails a day. When was the last time your local postie dumped 50 junkmail letters through your letterbox, most of them advertising porn? I'm not so sure about cookies though. They can at least be useful.
Graham, UK

Nobody in their right mind wants to read junk mail, and the vast majority of people don't want to receive it either

Michelle, UK
"Sending a spam email is equivalent to posting a leaflet through someone's door" This isn't quite true. Spam emails get sent to many thousands of recipients, possibly hundreds of thousands of email addresses. While the ordinary postman in the street may be able to drive around with his van delivering normal letters, typically he doesn't go round delivering junk letters. With the internet it's different because many hundreds of thousands of junk emails can be sent. The problem with this, that most people don't know is it can actually slow down and clog up the internet too! The web is already overloaded with data flying around as it is, and people sending bulk junk mail do nothing except add to the load. Nobody in their right mind wants to read junk mail, and the vast majority of people don't want to receive it either. It should be banned!!
Michelle, UK

People should decide what to receive in their mailboxes. The cost of sending emails is too low to allow other solutions: allowing opt-out will cause a flood of junk in everybody's mailbox. No one will simply have *time to opt out* because of the sheer amount. ISP will have to carry all the junk, increasing infrastructural costs with negative effects on the economy. The European Parliament decision has been a big, amazing mistake. It will cost Europe a lot of money.
Furio Ercolessi, Italy

I think offensive "Spam" should be outlawed, and the perpetrators should suffer the same penalties, which dissuade people from sending unsolicited offensive material via land mail. That said, since I started using high security settings for my E-mail inbox, 8 months ago, I have received no Spam or other junk E-mail at all. Like the front door to your home, you only allow desirable people to hold a key. Same applies to your E-mail. So there is a lot that the E-mail account user can do to stop being targeted by the problem.
Chris B., England

At last, some good news!

Chris Dalton, Widnes, UK
At last, some good news! My e-mail is regularly overrun by spam for products, which no-body in their right minds would ever want. Its time these companies stopped invading us with trash. The big question is now, how to stop them and who will control foreign companies, which are outside the EU?
Chris Dalton, Widnes, UK

A spam letter does not cost anything to receive, however depending on your connection type downloading a spam email could increase the connection charges. I for one would like a ban on all spam emails, letters and faxes (it wastes the paper in my fax machine).
Caron, England

Even though you don't have to read "spam" emails, it still costs you online time (which is usually the cost of a phone call) to read them -especially as some junk emails are titled so that it isn't obvious it's an advert, so you spend more time reading them. If I want a service or product I will actively seek it out - I don't want companies pre-empting this by sending my junk emails. I'm all for banning them.
Dave Hollingworth, UK

Long live cookies!

Will Faulkner, Hale, Cheshire, UK
The whole idea of cookies is not to capture details, but to make it easier for the user next time they visit a site. The images and other large files that take too long to download are then simply retrieved from a persons PC archive rather that having to download the information all over again. Banning the use of cookies is simply taking the Internet a step backwards, not a step forwards. I have no trouble blocking my email inbox from spam, it is simple to do and worthwhile. Long live cookies!
Will Faulkner, Hale, Cheshire, UK

The poster of this topic has missed the most important difference between postal junk mail and spam. In the post, the sender assumes all the cost. In email, the recipient bears the cost, to download the email before it can even be checked that it is spam or not! Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the user whether or not to give out their email address, or whether to allow cookies. But people who refuse cookies have no right to complain that web sites designed for cookie-users don't let them in!
Guy Hammond, England

Ban spam. Junk snail-mail, and nuisance telesales calls are paid for by the perpetrator. Spam email is paid for by the victim. When will people realise that the internet is a research resource where you can surf for what you want and then initiate contact when you've found it - instead of being an aggressive marketing tool?

I don't have to pay call costs to check my letterbox. I do to check my e-mail

Mark Boden, UK
When I check my e-mail of an evening to find I have twenty new mails promising me riches, loans or increased sexual potency I think its time some law was set up. Many of the spam mails contain inappropriate content, not suitable for children. The rest are just annoying. Plus I don't have to pay call costs to check my letterbox. I do to check my e-mail.
Mark Boden, UK

It is about time the European Parliament did something useful and banning spam mails is one of them. Anyone who goes on mailing list does so on a voluntary basis. Perhaps the same parliament could something about unsolicited letters also - it might save a few trees!
Hazel, UK

I'm sure many of us agree that spam emails are annoying, but how on earth do you enforce a ban on them? You might as well try to ban gravity. I would rather the European Parliament instead spent the time to bring out tough, enforceable legislation against more malicious crimes such as computer fraud or the creation of viruses.

I get around 35 e-mails a day on my home e-mail, and of those 35 around 32 of them are "SPAM". Over the past year, about 75% of the material coming into my office fax has been "junk faxes", and I regularly get people phoning me up in the evenings asking if I want to buy double glazing, new windows, a chance to win this, that or the other. So, all this considered, yes - good idea - get rid of it!
Simon Moore, UK