European Parliament doesn't want to ban spam

A committee for the European Parliament late Wednesday decided not to call for a ban on unsolicited commercial e-mail, commonly known as spam, voting instead to support an "opt-out" option favored by many direct marketers.

The EU Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted on a directive stating that it should be legal for companies to send spam by e-mail or SMS (short message service) mobile text messages, just as long as the solicitation comes with an address that allows recipients to request that they be removed from the mailing list, the European Parliamentary spokeswoman said.

The committee's recommendation next goes before the entire European Parliament where it will be debated before the plenary session votes in September, the spokeswoman said.

The committee had been considering an "opt-in" spam policy that had been proposed by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, requiring marketers that use e-mail to target consumers to gain permission before sending them spam or SMS messages.

"Yes, the Parliament took a less stringent view than the Commission on spam," the spokeswoman said.

It was a move hailed on Friday as a "good vote" for small and medium-size businesses (SMEs) in Europe by Axel Tandberg, director of government affairs for the Federation of European Direct Marketing or FEDMA, and as a "loss for consumers," by Joe McNamee, EU affairs spokesman for EuroISPA, a group that represents Europe's Internet service providers.

The current approach to spam is fragmented in Europe, with individual countries devising their own policies. Five European countries -- Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy -- have passed opt-in regulation on spam and were pushing for the EC to adopt a pan-European anti-spam law.

Last February, the EC released a study estimating that Internet users around the world pay 10 billion euros(US$8.54 billion) a year in connection charges just to receive junk e-mails, and proposed modifying existing data protection legislation to include the opt-in clause.

Marketing groups quickly contested the EC's findings and asserted that such new legislation would hurt SMEs in Europe by taking away promising new marketing tools.

"Opt-out allows SMEs in Europe to get into the market. We have found in studies that opt-in laws would increase costs by 10 percent to 50 percent for the SMEs and you don't want to stretch that part of the economy too hard," Tandberg said.

Due to the EU Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs Committee's recommendation, it now looks increasingly unlikely that the European Parliament, and in turn the EC, will vote for any sort of "opt-out" legislation, both Tandberg and EuroISPA's McNamee agree.

But though the committee favored the opt-out clause, the committee did not lay out clear guidelines on just how consumers would go about stemming the tide of spam.

"There are 18 million businesses in Europe: do you contact each company individually? Is there one opt-out list? Are there competing opt-out lists? They simply don't know how this would work," McNamee said. "It is fairly obvious that a global opt-off list won't work. It has already been a failure in the U.S."

Tandberg countered that lists could work, but more importantly, instituting opt-in clauses -- or anti-spam rules -- won't stop non-EU rogues from continuing to target EU e-mail addresses, and that opt-in is not the best way to control untargeted and unsolicited e-mail.

"I am just as annoyed as anyone by the spams selling pornography or get-rich-quick schemes, but that would not be stopped by (opt-in). The better thing would be to adopt opt-out along with a code of conduct where the industry regulates the industry or does so together with the EU," Tandberg said.

As it turns out, both McNamee and Tandberg agree that the annoying nature of spam may make it less prevalent in the future, with or without regulation. When asked if spam was the most effective way of targeting potential customers, Tandberg conceded that he didn't know.

"We will soon in the future go much more towards permission marketing, that's my guess. But it's important to point out that big brands will have a much easier time of it than small companies, or even charities who are looking for donations, for that matter," Tandberg said.

"Permission-based marketing is the way forward," McNamee said, but added that it looked like the European Parliament was set on taking a weak line on spam.

Consumers can still contact their MEPs (Member of European Parliament) to say that they favor anti-spam, opt-in legislation, McNamee said, but warned it would be hard to overcome the lobbying pressure from marketing groups.

"MEPs know already what the consumers' position on spam is, they've received anti-spam petitions, but when it comes to lobbying against spam here in Brussels, I've been pretty much on my own," McNamee said.

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