The European Commission Friday published a study which estimates that Internet users worldwide pay $US9.5 billion a year in connection costs just to receive unsolicited e-mail, dubbed spam.
The Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has proposed that existing data protection legislation designed for the telecommunications industry should be modified to include an opt-in clause that would force marketers that use e-mail to target consumers to gain permission from consumers before including them in spam e-mailings.
The direct marketing industry is concerned that this new legislative drive will outlaw one of its most promising new marketing techniques.
"We feel the definition of spam is too broad," said Alastair Tempest, director general of the Federation of European direct marketers or FEDMA. "We define it as untargeted, unsolicited e-mail, and it is carried out by rogue outfits that are already on the edge of existing laws or are downright illegal."
Tempest said that spam under his definition accounts for about 50 per cent of all direct marketing by e-mail today.
"The cowboys are giving us a bad name. Of course something should be done," he said.
But he argues that legislation is a blunt tool, for two reasons.
"First, most spam comes from outside the EU -- either from the US or from central Europe or Asia. Legislating against spam in the EU won't stop non-EU rogues from continuing to target EU e-mail addresses. Second, by legislating against spam, the EU might undermine a far more effective way of controlling such untargeted, unsolicited e-mailings," he said.
FEDMA believes the answer to the spam problem lies in software design, rather than in legislation. It wants to persuade Internet service providers and Internet e-mail providers to introduce software filters that filter out spam. It also wants access providers to take responsibility for spamming through their systems.
"ISPs should also be encouraged to take spammers to court for breach of contract, because most of them state clearly when they sign contracts with users that spamming isn't allowed," Tempest said.
By legislating against spam, the EU is reducing the pressure on ISPs to prevent spamming via their networks, he said.
By introducing an opt-in clause into the data protection directive for the telecom sector, the EU will be preventing legitimate companies from using e-mail as a marketing medium -- one that consumers might actually welcome, Tempest said.
If you are planning to buy a car, for example, and you contacted an online car magazine such as What Car? in the UK for information about particular models in your price range, that information is then shared with the car manufacturers, who contact the potential car buying either by e-mail or by phone to offer them a test drive.
"It seemed logical to offer this service when we started the What Car? Web site," said the magazine's commercial manager John Elkin.
"This is a very developed and targeted form of marketing. It is the ultimate form of direct marketing," Tempest said. "By introducing the opt-in into the data protection directive, the EU will be throwing this out with the spammers."