Europe outlaws spam, but the junk mail keeps on coming

Sunday, August 4th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Like most people, Massimo Cavazzini was sick of spam. Unlike most, though, the Italian entrepreneur had the law on his side.

Yet even after winning his case against an Italian Internet company _ and collecting a $244 fine _ Cavazzini still gets unwanted e-mails from the same firm.

``They didn't stop it,'' he says. ``So now I'm taking a second action.''

While Cavazzini's initial victory was heralded by anti-spam campaigners, his case also illustrates the difficulty in using laws to stop the torrent of junk e-mail that circles the globe.

Seven EU countries _ Italy, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Greece, Finland and Spain _ effectively ban spam along with such related annoyances as automated telemarketing and unsolicited faxes.

Yet there are loopholes.

Finland, for example, allows marketers to send unsolicited messages to customers asking if they can send them unsolicited messages.

And an Amsterdam district court ruled in March that a Dutch spammer with prestigious clients needed no prior consent to send unsolicited spam.

A new e-commerce data protection directive, adopted by the European Parliament last month, should provide a common level of protection across the 15-nation union.

Marketers sought an ``opt-out'' approach, which would allow spam but require them to provide a way to stop the flow. Consumer groups pushed for ``opt-in,'' where companies must have prior permission before sending anything.

Lawmakers settled on ``soft opt-in,'' meaning companies that already have a ``commercial relationship'' with someone _ perhaps a person who buys a book at _ can continue to send e-mail. New companies must get permission.

Marco Cappato, the Italian member of Parliament who shepherded the bill, calls the compromise a ``reasonable improvement'' on the opt-out he initially favored. But even Cappato doesn't believe his inbox will soon be spam-free.

Professional spammers usually hide their identity. Even if they can be traced, they can only be prosecuted if they are within the EU.

San Francisco-based Brightmail, which sells spam-filtering technology, estimates that only about 10 percent of spam received in the EU originates there.

``Because spam is a global problem, and most legislation is by definition local, we believe that the effectiveness is going to be minimal,'' says company spokesman Francois Lavaste. Yet that's no reason not to try, he and other spam opponents say.

Stefano Rodota, the EU's top data protection enforcer, says contacts are already under way with other countries to try to solve the problem.

``We need some means to refuse this kind of invasion of the private realm,'' Rodota says.