EU Opt-in E-Mail Directive Takes Effect Today

The European Union's directive to combat spam took effect today, requiring its 15 member states to implement legislation banning unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The privacy directive, originally published in July 2002, requires EU states to enact national laws that effectively ban unsolicited e-mail marketing without consumer consent or, in some cases, a prior business relationship. According to EU rules, members had until today to implement national legislation and begin enforcing it. In the United Kingdom, legislation takes effect Dec. 11.

The EU directive allows, but does not require, member states to ban commercial e-mail to businesses. The EU rules cover e-mail, faxes, automated calling systems and mobile messaging. They also ban using deception in sending messages and require a valid opt-out address. The directive lets national governments determine enforcement but requires remedies that allow consumers to claim damages.

“The bottom line is you need to move to consent-only marketing for any e-mail you are sending into Europe,” Ashlen Cherry, director of privacy and government affairs for San Mateo, CA, e-mail service provider Digital Impact, advised clients last week.

The Direct Marketing Association has criticized the directive, saying it will do nothing to address the spam problem while creating more barriers for legitimate commercial e-mailers.

Liz Leahy, vice president of strategy at Atlanta e-mail service provider Silverpop, said the directive's silver lining is that it could spur large companies to adopt best practices.

Silverpop recently advised a large UK-based client on its transition to complying with the directive. Previously, the company's business units had different e-mail lists with different forms of consent. It needed to determine which addresses needed further consent prior to the directive taking effect. The client also needed to implement a company-wide standard for its e-mail marketing.

“Something like this becomes a catalyst across a large organization to not just standardize but also think about what best practices are,” she said. “I've seen it be a catalyst for the true integration of the channel.”

The EU's opt-in approach contrasts with legislation passed last week in the U.S. Senate requiring consumers to opt out of receiving marketing e-mail. Erkki Liikanen, EU commissioner for enterprise and the information society, has stressed the need for countries like the United States and China to take aggressive steps to fight spam.

“Every country must do its part of the job and clean up its own house,” he said at a news conference in July announcing the directive.

Liikanen plans to host a meeting at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in January 2004 to discuss international efforts to address the spam issue.

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