UK spammers set to avoid prosecution until 2005

Companies who break Britain's anti-spam law are likely to get away with it until next year because the government is not giving the information commissioner enough enforcement powers

Legislation brought in last year to clamp down on UK companies who send unsolicited junk mail over the Internet is unlikely to result in any prosecutions until 2005.

The Information Commissioner's Office, which applies the Privacy and Electronic Communication regulations, says that it needs stronger powers to act against suspected transgressors. Without these additional sanctions, companies are free to continue sending email over the Internet while they are investigated -- a process that will take many months.

"It's possible there could be a prosecution towards the end of this year, in November or December. But realistically we are looking at next year," a spokeswoman for the information commissioner said on Thursday.

The Privacy and Electronic Communication regulations, which came into force in December 2003, make it illegal to send an unsolicited email to anyone that the sender doesn't already have business relationship with. The regulations only covered personal email addresses but even here they appear to be failing; the Information Commissioner's Office has already received complaints from UK citizens claiming they've been spammed, but admits that it is not in a position to take action speedily.

"It's not because we've not had any complaints, or aren't conducting any investigations. It's because we don't have the powers to act quickly," said the spokeswoman for the information commissioner. "We're keen to have stronger powers to be faster and more effective in cracking down on people who break the regulations. But we haven't been given them yet."

The government held a consultation last year before finalising the details of its anti-spam laws. At the time, the Information Commissioner's Office said that it wanted "stop now" powers, where a company that is suspected of spamming would be blocked from sending marketing messages by email while the case was investigated.

However, the government decided against this, and was attacked by the All-Party Internet Group for not giving the Information Commissioner's Office more powers.

Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, is understood to be pushing for his office's powers to be extended. The government has not yet made a decision.

"The Department of Trade and Industry is committed to reviewing the information commissioner's powers to enforce the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations," said a DTI spokesman.

"Beside regular discussions on the issue between the DTI and the information commissioner, such as the meeting between information Commissioner Richard Thomas and minister for e-commerce Stephen Timms last week, we are still consulting with key stakeholders."

A survey published by communications firm Pitney Bowes this week claimed that half of UK companies are failing to comply with the Privacy and Electronic Communication regulations. Pitney Bowes surveyed the top 50 companies in the telecoms, publishing, banking, insurance and retail sectors. It found that almost half of the companies fail to ask non-customers to actively opt in to further marketing emails when their details were recorded as the result of a promotion or enquiry. The new law says that companies cannot use the old practice of relying on opt-out check boxes.