Colin Lloyd on the Vicissitudes of Privacy and E-Mail

LONDON – The “pond” just got a little narrower. This week we hear that your Federal Trade Commission and the European Union have stopped throwing their toys out of their prams and finally promised a solution to transferring data between the US and EU.

It is known euphemistically as “safe harbours” – spelt in British English of course – and how safe it is only time will tell. I have it on good opinion that it’s what responsible direct marketers have been doing for years, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The credit card companies are for once way ahead of the game.

As most of us are getting bored over here with privacy, we have turned our attention to the seemingly greener pastures of e-commerce.

The British Government has set out its stall for making the UK the best place in the world for e-commerce by the year 2002. When I reminded them recently that that’s 21 months away, the great British reserve wobbled somewhat at the thought.

What guys in Palo Alto think about this threat to their pre-eminent e-status I can only imagine. I guess a few have dialed up Amazon to buy an atlas to work out where the UK is – not many sleepless nights on the west coast I think. The fact that the AOL Time Warner merger makes this company bigger than New Zealand sort of puts this into perspective.

Notwithstanding the uphill battle, determination reigns supreme in the motherland to be No. 1. The Brits have already worked out that we are leading the European e-race on this side of the “pond.” It’s always a great pleasure when we have one over on our “Johnny foreigner” cousins.

The EC had a shock horror recently as some bright spark researcher kindly worked out that 80 percent of e-commerce in the EU is through US companies. There is nothing like an old fashioned trade war to gird the loins of the EU bureaucrats.

On the basis that the tried and trusted response is “if we don’t understand it, lets legislate,” or in the case of the EC fire of a directive or two and see what happens, the bureaucratic machinery is now in full swing.

The latest hot potato is the adoption of the Distance Selling Directive, which has to become law in EU member states by June 1. One of the issues contained in the Directive is in connection with the marketing use of e-mail. They resisted calling it spam, probably on the basis that they did not want to offend the Americans as you invented it.

Exporting the culture and ethics of the great American people to an unsuspecting world through unsolicited e-mail is really a stroke of genius.

I guess there are a few less appreciative folk on your side of the Atlantic who do not appreciate the subtleties and export potential of Spam. I hear that they want to ban it, but the cavalry in the form of the US DMA have come to the rescue and launched the e-mail preference service earlier this year.

Fingers in the dam come to mind. However, a few of us have joined in the fun and supported the scheme in many countries.

Our support of the e-mail preference scheme left the UK government in a bit of a dilemma. If it is going to be the best country in the world … etc., then it can’t be seen banning an ingredient of e-commerce. On the other hand the ISP’s ganged up, complaining that spam clogged up their nice bandwidth and it would get worse if our creatives added pretty graphics.

However the ISP’s did have one good argument in that unlike any other DM media, e-mail costs the recipient to receive it. We don’t give local calls away free as you do – yet.

True to form, rescue was at hand from the US e- cavalry in the form of Alta Vista. They went and spoiled the party and gave away free e-mail access in the UK in a gesture of true Trans-Atlantic bon home. This truly set the cat among the pigeons. Within days many major telecoms companies, who had been hiding behind healthy revenue streams, also gave away Internet access.

This pulled the rug out from under the ISPs, who are now wondering why they are in business.

With the main plank of the “anti” argument gone, rumors are that the UK government will now favor opt out for e-mail and Europe can continue to enjoy the cultural delights of the US through the auspices of spam.

Perhaps my final bit of news is that I know you have often wondered whether it is really me that writes to you – electronic communication being what it is. The good news if that we now have a directive that recognizes digital signatures. They haven’t worked out how to issue them but give them a break.

It does mean that you will know it’s me when I write again. This of course assumes that digital signatures are regarded as personal data and that the safe harbour principle is in place. Otherwise we are back where we started.

However more good news is that the first digital signature to be used will be that of Her Majesty the Queen. Which means that when she replies to all of the unsolicited e-mail that she receives from certain folks in the White House they can be upstanding when they read Her reply in the full knowledge that it

is She.

In this new e-world its nice to know that nothing has changed.

Yours etc.,

Name withheld until ‘safe harbours’ is safe.

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