Britain, U.S. talk up spam fight

Legislation has been seen as the weak link in the spam war, but some officials appear confident they can make a difference.

Representatives from worldwide governments, including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, are meeting in London this week to discuss how a united front can help to crack down on the problem of unsolicited bulk e-mail.

The initiative represents the latest in a string of events regarding spam, which to date have yielded little result and little agreement on the best approach. John Vickers, chairman of the Office of Fair Trading that is hosting the event, urged the industry, the media and average e-mail users to hold off on cynicism about this most recent initiative until its effect has been witnessed.

"Wait and see," he said at a press conference.

Legislation has long been regarded as the weakest link with regards to the war on spam, but attendees at the conference appeared confident they can make a real impact.

Many will see the presence of the FTC as one reason for optimism, given the huge role the United States plays in contributing to the levels of spam and the widespread criticism of current U.S. laws.

Deborah Majoras, chairwoman of the FTC, said the creation of an international working group on spam is vital in breaking down the problem of enforcing laws across national boundaries and multiple jurisdictions.

"As a global community we can send a message to the spammers, telling them: 'You can no longer use a national border as a shield to protect yourself from law enforcement.'"

The European Union and U.S. representatives were in bullish mood, with U.K. information commissioner Richard Thomas promising an end to talking and a new focus on action. But there was still little agreement on the exact nature of the problem, and little visible buy-in from countries such as China, Korea and Russia that are also large contributors to the problem.

Majoras refused to accept the level of U.S. culpability, knocking back the commonly accepted assertion that the majority of spammers are based in the United States. She also doubted suggestions that the identities of the most prolific bulk mailers are well known within anti-spam circles, adding that "our biggest problem is tracing the origin of the spam" due to the complicated measures spammers have in place to cover their tracks.

Thomas, who spoke frankly about the inadequate powers and resources he has to clamp down on spammers, expressed jealousy for the powers of injunction that the Office of Fair Trading can apply to offline "rogue traders" and dismay at the limits of his own power to deal with their online counterparts.

"We don't have adequate powers to get hold of information from third parties such as ISPs, as to the identity of spammers," said Thomas, who urged greater co-operation from the private sector.

Despite the positive mood and a promise of change, the group remains fairly grounded when predictions of timescale and likely success are concerned.

"We need to do more, and we know we need to do more," Majoras said.

Thomas added, "We are not going to eliminate spam altogether."

Perhaps the statement upon which the whole process hinges came from Thomas.

"Spammers love it when the regulators take ages deliberating who is responsible and what should be done," he said. "We really must get our act together."