UK laws may help spammers look legit

British politicians have been urged to lobby their US counterparts to prevent the meltdown of the Internet

The UK government's anti-spam crackdown is likely to fail at tackling the problem of unsolicited email and will actually help spammers look as if they are acting legitimately, according to a legal expert.

Clive Gringras, partner at law firm Olswang, told MPs on Thursday that the proposed legislation would not make the necessary impact on the escalating problem of unsolicited bulk email.

"It's like telling criminals to wear a suit and tie so they don't look like a criminal. We'd rather that they carried a bag marked swag," said Gringras, explaining that he believes the government is running the risk of helping to make spam look acceptable.

Under the proposed legislation, it will be illegal for a UK company to send unsolicited mail advertising their products and services to an individual unless they already have an existing business relationship with that person or they have opted-in to receive such email.

E-commerce minister Stephen Timms has already admitted that this won't be enough to end the spam problem.

Similar laws are being brought in by other European countries, as part of the implementation of the EU directive on privacy and electronic communications.

Gringras's comments were made at the first evidence session organised by the parliamentary All Party Internet Group (APIG), which also organised the Spam Summit earlier this week. At both events, experts have said that legislation alone will not combat the growing tide of junk mail that is flooding the Internet -- technology, they say, holds the key.

Email-management firm Messagelabs warned earlier this week that spammers are increasingly making use of open proxies -- computers on the Web that will bounce an email onto a third party, disguising its true origin.

"Unfortunately, the legislation going through now has been well overtaken by tech and commercial developments," said Gringras.

One of the most startling contributions to Tuesday's Spam Summit came from Steve Linford of Spamhaus, a project that traces the worse spammers and helps ISPs to block their traffic. Linford said that 90 percent of the world's unsolicited bulk email came from just 200 spammers.

Linford also claimed that legislation currently being debated in America will actually make the spam problem worse because it will force Internet users to opt-out of receiving spam.

"If the US does go for opt-out then the spam problem will go through the roof," said Linford, explaining that such a move would allow spammers to come out of the shadows and operate freely. The result, Linford believes, will be a further steep rise in the amount of spam being sent across the Internet, which could make email effectively unusable.

"If we adopt one system, and the US adopts another, there'll be anarchy," predicted Derek Wyatt, joint chairman of the APIG, on Thursday.

Wyatt, and fellow MPs Brian White and Richard Allan, were urged by other speakers on Thursday to liaise with their counterparts in the US to resolve the issue quickly.

"I think there's time to resolve this (opt-in versus opt-out) issue," predicted Phil Jones, assistant commissioner at the Office of the Information Commissioner.


For everything Internet-related, from the latest legal and policy-related news, to domain name updates, see ZDNet UK's Internet News Section.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.