U.K. lawmakers call on US to pass spam legislation

The U.S. Congress needs to move forward with anti-spam legislation, even though the U.S. and the European Union have different ideas on how to classify spam, two members of the U.K. House of Commons said Wednesday.

Brian White and Andrew Miller, both members of the U.K. Parliament (MPs), said a debate between the opt-in approach to receiving e-mail that most nations in the European Union are considering and the opt-out approach to receiving unsolicited commercial e-mail in most bills before Congress could hold up the U.S. from doing anything. In an opt-out approach, e-mail recipients would be required to tell senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail that they don’t want any more before the sender would be required to stop, while in Europe, many countries are moving toward opt-in laws, where senders must first get a customer’s permission before sending them e-mail.

Despite the differences in approach, lawmakers need to pass tough anti-spam laws, White said at a Wednesday luncheon on spam and other e-mail security threats hosted by e-mail security vendor MessageLabs Ltd. in Washington, D.C. Both legislative and technological approaches are needed to fight spam, he added. White and Miller are part of a U.K. delegation in Washington this week to discuss spam and other technology issues with members of Congress, leaders of federal agencies and others.

“An argument that says ‘opt out is better’ or ‘opt in is better’ is going to be a very interesting argument … but it wouldn’t actually move us ahead very far,” White said. “If we don’t find a way of working together, spammers will find a way of playing us off against each other.”

Miller said he understands why backers of the U.S. First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech would object to an opt-in approach to commercial e-mail, but anti-spam legislation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean can be effective without being exactly alike. “An amendment to the (U.S.) Constitution will take years – we haven’t got years,” Miller said after the luncheon. “We haven’t got time to have this interesting, academic debate about the meaning of the First Amendment.”

U.K. MPs are getting swamped with complaints about spam, just like their U.S. counterparts, White said. Because the vast majority of spam is in English, the U.S. and the U.K. need to take the lead on solving the problem, he added.

But spam legislation in Congress seems to be bottled up at the moment. In mid-July, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee sent the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 to the full Senate floor, and in late August, the Senate Judiciary Committee moved the Criminal Spam Act out of committee, but the full Senate hasn’t voted on either bill yet.

On Wednesday, Senator Charles Schumer again called for Senate anti-spam bills to include a national anti-spam registry similar to the national do-not-call telemarketing list that went into effect this month. Schumer, a New York Democrat, released the results of a new poll saying that 88 per cent of respondents were “seriously concerned” about their children receiving pornographic spam and three of four respondents would sign up for a national do-not-spam list.

“If parents can control what their kids watch on TV, they should be able to control what their children are exposed to on the Internet,” Schumer said in a statement. “We’ve got parental advisory notices on music and ratings for TV shows and movies to ensure that parents have the ability to keep their children from being exposed to inappropriate materials. So it’s baffling that there is no safeguard in place to ensure that parents can protect their kids from vulgar e-mail. The e-mailing public has been at the mercy of spammers for way too long.”

In the U.S. House, members of the Energy and Commerce Committee have been trying to iron out the differences between two bills since the second, the Anti-Spam Act of 2003, was introduced in June. During the MessageLabs luncheon, Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Select Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, called the Anti-Spam Act of 2003 a leading edge bill, but he said the anti-spam legislation doesn’t have the same momentum as it did last year.

Sessions also called on technology companies to come up with a consensus on how to deal with spam through technological means. “Sooner or later” the U.S. will come up with a consensus on ways to combat spam, he predicted.

“If there is a consensus from people like you, who are in the business and care about the success of your industry, then I think we can move forward,” Sessions said. “If there is not some bit of consensus … then we will do nothing.”

Sessions challenged the tech industry to come up with a series of recommendations, “even if they’re baby steps,” to help the U.S. come to consensus on how to deal with spam, both from a technological and a legal standpoint.