Europe moves in circles over spam laws

The European Parliament reverts to an earlier position on unsolicited email advertising, showing evidence of a split in the ranks

The European Parliament's Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs has reasserted its earlier position on email spam by voting in favour of the Marco Cappato report on data protection.

In a second reading of the report, the Committee voted on Monday night to leave it to the discretion of individual member states to decide whether subscribers should be able to "opt in" or "opt out" of unsolicited email for marketing purposes. Direct marketing by fax, SMS or automated calling systems is to be allowed only with prior consent by subscribers.

There is currently no consensus across Europe on how junk email should be handled, with individual countries adopting their own policy. UK MEPs have argued in favour of unsolicited email as a legitimate business tool, stressing that it causes no direct harm to the individual. But other nations are concerned about the privacy implications of passing on an individual's personal data for the purposes of junk marketing.

The Cappato report was initially approved at a plenary session in July. An amendment added a requirement that email advertisers allow users to "opt out", but the report was subsequently thrown out by the European Parliament.

It was therefore necessary for the report to go back to its Committee stage, which on Monday night went back to the earlier version of the report, without the opt-out provision. Observers said the back-and-forth is evidence that Parliament is split over what position to take.

"There is clearly a division in Parliament, which is not usual," said Tony Bunyan, editor of the NGO publication "Statewatch. "Normally at the first Parliamentary reading, proposals are taken by the scruff of their neck and pushed through -- it may be that the second time round, some parties against the report will abstain."

"Both sides are claiming to protect the rights of the individual from different perspectives, which has resulted in some very curious positions," Bunyan added.

The Cappato report will now be debated and voted on during the Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg in November. A co-decision by the European Parliament and European Committee to approve the report would ultimately require member states to incorporate the proposal into local law.

The UK currently has no specific legislation for controlling spam. If an opt-out rule were to go into effect here, it would be the first time that UK senders of unsolicited email would be required to include opt-out information.

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