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Economic Group Urges Global Cooperation on Spam

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development opened an anti-spam conference in Europe yesterday, urging international cooperation to fight spammers despite little agreement on the best legislative approach.

The OECD, a Paris-based intergovernmental group of 30 countries, issued a background paper for the two-day workshop in Brussels. The organization acknowledged the divergent approaches to fighting spam while calling for cooperation to crack down on spammers that threaten to overwhelm the world's e-mail systems.

“In order for the Internet to maintain and increase commercial growth, users must have confidence in the security and usability of this electronic medium,” the OECD report said. “The significant increase of spam threatens to erode consumer confidence online, which in turn has a negative effect on the growth of the digital economy.”

The group noted that costs of unwanted e-mail are spread far and wide, including loss of worker productivity and network resources and the cost of legitimate e-mail blocked. Half of all e-mail worldwide is now estimated to be spam, yet little consensus exists in how to deal with it.

The conference brings together U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson and Erkki Liikanen, his counterpart on the European Commission. The most striking difference in tactics involves the United States and Europe. In the United States, the CAN-SPAM Act has taken an opt-out approach, allowing unsolicited commercial e-mail until a consumer opts out, while the European Union's recently enacted anti-spam directive forbids unsolicited commercial e-mail.

“Given the global nature of the Internet, the different approaches among countries may cause further difficulties to implement effective solutions worldwide,” the OECD said.

Some progress is occurring in international cooperation. The FTC said last week that it would cooperate with similar law enforcement and regulatory agencies in 26 countries to close open relays and proxies often used by spammers to route their e-mail through unsuspecting third parties and disguise their identity. The regulatory bodies will send letters to the owners of Web sites with open proxies to close them.

In his remarks opening the conference yesterday, Liikanen downplayed the different approaches taken by the EU and the United States, which the United Nations recently pegged as the No. 1 source of spam.

“We need to take into account the diversity of the regulatory approaches taken in OECD member countries,” he said. “What is important is that effective legislation be adopted. Effective legislation also means that countries have the necessary investigation and prosecution powers, as well as the ability to cooperate internationally.”

Liikanen took a swipe at Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who last week declared that Microsoft was at work on technologies that would solve the spam problem in two years. Liikanen declared “there is no 'magic solution' to combat spam.” He urged tighter law enforcement and more industry self-regulation, in addition to technology advances and consumer education.

Liikanen trumpeted the news two weeks ago that a Danish court fined a Copenhagen telecom firm $68,000 for sending more than 1,500 unsolicited e-mails. To date, only six of the EU states have implemented the anti-spam directive that took effect Oct. 31, 2003. In December, the European Commission warned the nine states that have not implemented laws that they faced fines.

“Every country should start by cleaning up its own house,” Liikanen said.

With the CAN-SPAM Act just a month old, the FTC has yet to prosecute any violators. Spam-filtering companies report that the first month under the new federal law saw no drop in the levels of spam. According to Brightmail's Probe Network, spam accounted for 60 percent of e-mail in January, a 2 percent rise from the previous month.

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