EU acts on spam and copyright

Two controversial issues force the EU to strike a balance between big business and ordinary users

Spam and other junk email costs Web users around £6bn each year, a new report from the European Commission concludes.

The report forms part of ongoing European Union (EU) investigation into ways to combat unsolicited email. The EU voted in July to permit email marketing if users gave permission for it but is still debating whether to extend this to spam.

The EU is keen to strike a balance between individuals' right to privacy and Internet advertising interests and believes that a complete ban on email marketing, as has been enforced in some US states, could stifle the growth of e-commerce in Europe.

"The exponential growth of junk email in recent years is a fact of life," says the EU's internal market commissioner Frits Bolkestein in a statement. "Consumer information gleaned from individual web transactions/consultations can be sold for large sums of money, and yet many individual subscribers are unaware of the scale and implications of these developments."

In Europe, some nations operate an "opt-out" scheme, whereby Internet users have to explicitly ask not to receive email marketing when handing over personal details. The EU report favours an "opt-out" scheme and says that only "permission based marketing" will protect individual rights and inspire consumer confidence.

Joe McNamee of the European Internet service providers association (EuroISPA) says that only permission-based marketing would be acceptable to industry. "There is not one example to my knowledge of a reputable company sending unsolicited email," he says. "And I'm not aware of anywhere where the opt-out method works. Permission-based marketing has been shown as the way forward."

In another move that reflects the clash between the interests of Internet users and big business, an EU parliamentary committee voted Monday against introducing legislation that would require payment for music downloaded over the Internet.

Despite pressure from the entertainment industry, the committee voted against requiring a fee for making copies of rights-protected digital information. ISPs were concerned that such legislation would have serious implications on caching -- the method by which they temporarily store Web pages.

The European Association of Consumer Electronics Manufacturers (EACEM) has given a cautious welcome to the decision saying that the amendments would have been highly restrictive to many ordinary computer users.

"Given the unprecedented lobbying activities of rightholders, many groups had feared that the delicate balance struck by EU Member States would be broken," commented Lucy C Cronin, executive director of European Digital Media Association (EDiMA).

Some concessions were made to the entertainment industry, however, including a rewording of the legal exception that allows individuals to copy digital material for personal use. A clause has been included prohibiting copying for "indirect" commercial use. An EACEM spokeswoman says this remains unclear and might lead to a tightening of the law in Europe concerning digital copying.

Digital copyright has become an important issue for the entertainment and technology industries. The SDMI (Secure Digital Music Initiative) has attempted to come up with technologies designed to protect music copyright by allowing only limited copies of music to be made. Napster, the controversial online MP3 sharing application recently announced plans to launch a subscription service.

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