Government rules out wider spam protection - for now

British firms labouring under increasing levels of spam will get no help from the government in the near term but a big lobbying effort could change that

The government has ruled out changing Britain's anti-spam laws to protect businesses anytime soon, despite its own research finding that the majority of UK firms are expecting a rising tide of unsolicited email.

But, said the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), although there are no plans at present to make it an offence to spam a British business email address, this could change if enough companies lobby for it. "Legislation that we brought in last year needs to bed in a bit," said a DTI spokesman. "We're looking to give it a good run. However, if the majority of businesses had huge objections, then we'd have to listen."

This stance comes in the face of the publication of statistics from this year's DTI Information Security Breaches Survey last week, showing that 55 percent of companies surveyed think that spam volumes are rising, while just 10 percent can see a reduction in the amount of junk mail they are receiving.

Laws introduced in late 2003 by the DTI made it illegal to email an unsolicited message to the personal email address of anyone with whom the sender did not already have business relationship. Controversially, the law left corporate addresses open for spamming -- a move that was attacked by organisations such as Spamhaus and the All Party Internet Group (APIG).

The UK business sector may only have itself to blame, though, for this lack of protection.

"Businesses got what they wanted. We ran a consultation before finalising the legislation, and they certainly made their views known. Businesses as a whole did not want to be included," said the DTI spokesman, adding that many firms were afraid of losing business if they could not send adverts for their wares over the Web to potential customers.

Critics of the law in its current form are not giving up. It is understood that some anti-spam campaigners are in discussions with the DTI about widening the law to protect businesses. APIG is also maintaining pressure over the issue.

"Any legitimate interest that businesses have in sending and receiving emails advertising useful products is being drowned by the tide of spam that is washing up in all our mailboxes at present," said Richard Allan MP, joint vice-chairman of APIG.

Allan believes that firms were mistaken in thinking that they want or need the right to spam UK Internet users.

"Unsolicited bulk commercial email is not a workable marketing tool whether directed at personal or business email addresses because of the ease with which the mechanism can be abused. Legitimate businesses in the UK cannot anyway send unsolicited bulk email as it is banned by all the major ISPs in this country under their terms of use," said Allan. "We should now extend the ban on spam to include business email addresses and explain to businesses that the effective way to conduct marketing over the Internet is to develop targeted permission-based strategies."

Even if the government did take this step, the spam problem wouldn't be solved. Most unsolicited emails received in the UK comes from America. If the spammers were unable to operate in the US, they will probably shift to other territories such as China and continue operating.

While some businesses view this prospect with alarm, others are more sanguine.

One in 10 firms interviewed for the Information Security Breaches Survey said spam was a major problem, but a third reported that they are unconcerned about the issue.