Governments around the world were urged to cooperate more in their fight against the proliferation of spam, or unsolicited e-mail, at a conference Monday organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
"We need a coordinated international drive to maintain consumer and business confidence in the Internet," said OECD deputy secretary-general Herwid Schlögl.
The conference, held in Brussels, comes at a time when spam accounts for over half of all e-mails in circulation -- and it is occurring on the heels of the Mydoom spam viruses, which have polluted millions of computers around the world in the past week.
Governments of the 30 developed countries in the OECD should work together to improve law enforcement, the organization said in a report prepared for the conference. They can also use their spending power "as a carrot to encourage suppliers to develop more effective anti-spam protection systems," it said.
"For the Internet to go on growing as a viable commercial medium, users must have confidence in its security and usability," Schlögl said, adding that spam "threatens to erode consumer confidence online, which in turn would undermine the digital economy and the open character of the Internet as a whole."
The call for better international coordination was picked up by many government officials attending the two-day conference. Mozelle Thompson, a commissioner at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, said the U.S. is already cooperating with other countries. Last week 27 countries including the U.S. launched an initiative called Operation Secure Your Server, Thompson said.
However, the U.S. was criticized for adopting a softer regulatory approach to fighting spam than the European Union (E.U.). The U.S. has an 'opt out' approach, which means that a computer user must choose to be excluded from any unsolicited mass-e-mailings. E.U. law, which is in the process of being adopted in all 15 countries in the Union, forbids people from sending unsolicited e-mails unless the recipients have expressly opted in to that mailing list.
The different approach taken on either side of the Atlantic "doesn't help" develop an international approach to combating spam, said European Commissioner for the information society, Erkki Liikanen.
Thompson said that too much is being made of the differing legislative approaches. "Most of the spam we are seeing is so bad that the question of opt-in or opt-out isn't part of the question," he said. "Instead of focussing on our differences we should focus on what we have in common, which is a spam problem," he added.
Liikanen agreed that laws aren't the only way to fight spam. Technological solutions and consumer awareness are also vital, he said.
Some people in industry dismiss the law as a blunt tool. Most spam was already illegal in Europe before the Union-wide opt-in law was agreed to two years ago, said Alistair Tempest, a director at the European directing marketing association, FEDMA. "Spam offering penis enlargement and Viagra pills was forbidden under existing pharmaceutical marketing rules," he said, adding that frauds such as the e-mails from Nigeria offering millions of dollars to people willing to expatriate vast sums of cash, were illegal under all E.U. countries' criminal laws long before the E.U. agreed on the opt-in approach against spam.
Creating a financial disincentive for spammers could be a potent weapon, others believe. "Unless spam becomes more costly, there's no solution for spam," Liikanen said.