Discussions are currently underway at the European Commission and the Department of Trade and Industry about whether unsolicited e-mails can be controlled under the Telecommunications Directive -- a supplement to Data Protection Act -- which explicitly gives people the right to object to direct marketing calls.
David Smith, assistant registrar at the Data Protection Registrar, believes that e-mails should be included in the new law. "I suspect that when the directive was drawn up, they were not thinking about the impact of e-mails. The law ought to apply to e-mails as well as telephone calls. It is what's best for customer protection" he said.
But David Johnson, commercial director at Virgin Net, does not believe the law will stop the plethora the junk e-mails, more commonly known as spam. "I don't think people who collect e-mail addresses will be any more hindered and I can't see it would affect ISP's, as we certainly don't sell customer information to them," he said. "We offer a high level of privacy" he added.
The DPR's Smith conceded that solving the problem would not be easy. "Any arrangement is difficult to police given the nature of the Internet" he said. However, the Distance Selling Directive, due to come into operation in June 2000, will make e-mail preference services statutory. In other words, people will be able to refuse junk e-mails in the same way they can currently opt out of conventional junk mail. The details of how this directive will work are yet to be worked out, although Smith suspects registration will be done through ISP's.
The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is currently working on a voluntary e-mail preference service. The DMA's Tessa Kelly explained how the conventional post scheme works: "Consumers register with the DMA, and we distribute their files to licensed companies. We believe that about 95% of unsolicited mail is stopped by this." She hopes the e-mail preference service will mirror this, although she accepts that the global nature of the Internet will make the plan harder to action.