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Britain Proposes Bans on Unsolicited Direct Marketing

Direct marketing is about to become harder in Britain.

The government unveiled proposals to protect Britons from e-mails, SMS wireless messages and telemarketing calls that are unsolicited. Spam, which accounts for 40 percent of global e-mail traffic, has been singled out as a main reason to strengthen consumer privacy rights.

“Spam has become the curse of the Internet,” Stephen Timms, Britain's e-commerce minister, said in a statement released jointly by the Prime Minister's Office and the Department of Trade and Industry. “It is a source of major frustration as it clogs up inboxes the world over.

“Just as the Internet and mobile technology have become a firm feature of our lives, spam is threatening that status,” he said. “It is in danger of becoming a real deterrent to online communication.”

Announced March 27, the proposals offer consumers more transparency and choice in how their personal details are used by marketers. They are in line with the new European Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications. Efforts are on to tailor the proposals for British use.

The proposed regulations would require businesses to gain consent before sending unsolicited advertising e-mails. Companies would need to explicitly gain this consent on an opt-in basis except where there is an existing customer relationship.

Marketers would have to clearly inform consumers about the use of cookies or other tracking devices. Consumers would be given a chance to reject such cookies.

Similarly, wireless operators and their partners could offer value-added services like traffic and weather updates only after seeking and gaining consumer consent.

Finally, the proposals aim to ensure stronger rights for individuals to decide whether they want to be listed in subscriber directories. Clear information of the directory would need to be given, particularly if further contact details can be obtained from a phone number or a name and address.

“When used properly, direct marketing is a powerful business tool,” Timms said in the statement. “But badly targeted messages, whether by e-mail, phone, fax or text, are a global concern. Not only are they a great nuisance, they are eroding trust in legitimate and valuable business services.”

Consultations on implementation of these proposals will last three months. The European Union-wide privacy and electronic communication directive takes effect in October.

Britain's Internet Services Providers Association has gone on record to support the proposals since spam forced the costly upgrade of computer capacity to handle additional e-mail traffic.

Likewise, the country's Direct Marketing Association welcomed the chance to comment on the Department of Trade and Industry's draft regulations. The London-based trade body is preparing an assessment of the government's plans. But it did have initial reservations.

“General concerns about the legislation center on the need to ensure that it does not disadvantage European business against other players in the global market who are not burdened by such legislation,” the British DMA said in statement.

“The [British] DMA is also keen to ensure that small to medium-sized enterprises are not disadvantaged,” it said. “E-mail marketing provides a very low cost entry-to-market and is, therefore, of special value to SMEs who do not have large promotional budgets with which to compete with major corporates who have the ability and the funds to create permission-based data-gathering campaigns.”

Besides, the British DMA said, there is no guarantee such sweeping legal protection will work.

“In a global market, European legislation is powerless to eradicate spam,” the association said in the statement. “Over 80 percent of all spam originates from the USA, where there is currently no specific federal restriction on e-mail marketing.”

The trade body holds that only technology will prevent spam, either at the ISP or computer level. It is concerned that there should not be a general ban on bulk e-mail by ISPs, already in place by certain players. The DMA is discussing with the ISPs on this specific delivery issue.

Still, the DMA is not all that critical of the British government's proposals. The final version of the European directive has been praised for only requiring Web site operators to give users clear and comprehensive information about why and how cookies are used and the users' right to refuse the use of cookies.

This way, site operators will not have to create pop-up boxes to inform consumers at each visit to their site. Doing so could confuse consumers and make them more wary of shopping online.

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