Transatlantic anti-spam alliance mooted

The Office of Fair Trading is hosting an international conference aimed at finally doing something about the growing problem of unsolicited bulk email

Representatives from a variety of worldwide legislative and governmental bodies, including the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), are meeting in London this week to discuss how a united front can help to crack down on the problem of unsolicited bulk email.

Although the initiative represents the latest in a string of events discussing the problem of spam, which to date have yielded little result and little agreement on the best approach, John Vickers, chairman of the Office of Fair Trading, who is hosting the event, urged the industry, the media and end users to hold off any cynicism about this most recent initiative until its impact has been witnessed.

Vickers told a press conference: "Wait and see."

Legislation has long been regarded as the weakest link with regards to the war on spam but attendees at the conference are 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 US plays in contributing to the levels of spam and the widespread criticism of current US laws.

Deborah Majoras, chairman 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."

However, while the EU and US representatives were in bullish mood, with UK information commissioner Richard Thomas promising and end to talking and a new focus on action, 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 who are also large contributors to the problem.

Thomas said: "The vast majority of complaints we deal with involve emails coming into the UK from overseas."

However, Majoras refused to accept the level of US culpability, knocking-back the commonly held belief that the majority of spammers are based in the US. 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.

However, showing a more realistic grasp of the task in hand was Thomas, who spoke frankly about the inadequate powers and resources he has to clamp down on spammers - expressing jealousy for the powers of rapid injunction which the OFT can apply to offline 'rogue traders' and dismay at the limits of his own remit.

"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.

Although feeling within the antispam community is that there is no legislating for end-user error the OFT's Vickers believes educating all end users is still as important as using limited resources to target the big wins at the ISP level.

However, he conceded: "We have a long way to go to raise consumer awareness."

And the lessons from the antivirus industry suggest the message may never get through.

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

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

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

But perhaps the statement upon which the whole process hinges came from Thomas when he said: "Spammers love it when the regulators take ages deliberating who is responsible and what should be done. We really must get our act together."

"The time for talking is over, today we need action."