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Survey Finds Wide Support for Opt-in Spam Laws

A survey released this week by a group of European and U.S. consumer organizations showed widespread support for tough spam-fighting laws.

The poll by Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, which represents 65 consumer groups in Europe and the United States, found that 81 percent of respondents in both areas supported laws requiring permission before sending commercial e-mail. And 80 percent said that unsolicited commercial e-mail should be labeled as advertising.

The survey, conducted online from October to December 2003, questioned more than 21,000 consumers in 36 countries. The consumer groups released the survey during their annual meeting, which coincides with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's two-day workshop in Brussels to foster international cooperation against spam.

However, the OECD meeting has underscored the different approaches to spam on each side of the Atlantic. The European Union's recently enacted spam directive bans unsolicited commercial e-mail, while the CAN-SPAM Act in the United States lets marketers send e-mail until a customer asks them to stop.

The consumer groups, which favor the EU law over CAN-SPAM, urged governments to adopt a common legislative approach to spam, adding that “a broad majority of consumers favor an opt-in approach.”

In opening the workshop Monday, OECD deputy secretary-general Herwig Schlšgl said international cooperation is needed to combat spam: “We need a coordinated international drive to maintain consumer and business confidence in the Internet. Governments have an essential role to play both as policy makers and as users of e-mail themselves.”

The European Commission's Erkki Liikanen said, “Every country should start by cleaning up its own house.” He also noted that the majority of spam does not originate in the EU. The United Nations estimated last year that U.S. senders account for 58 percent of all spam.

Mozelle Thompson, a U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner at the OECD meeting, said most spammers already break existing fraud laws, making the different legal approaches between the United States and EU moot.

“Instead of focusing on our differences, we should focus on what we have in common, which is a spam problem,” he said, according to IDG News Service.

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.

Despite the gulf between EU and U.S. views of spam, the survey showed some common positions between consumers. An equal percentage in each region supported an opt-in requirement for commercial e-mail, and a similar proportion supported banning unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue admitted that many respondents expressed skepticism about whether an opt-in requirement would work, yet urged direct marketers to note consumers' distaste for unsolicited e-mail.

“Members of the direct marketing industry should respect the clear privacy preferences that consumers expressed in this survey by adopting opt-in policies and practices in the use of unsolicited commercial e-mail, even if such policies and practices go further than what is required by national law,” the report concluded.

The poll also found reticence toward e-commerce because of spam, as 52 percent said their online shopping was curtailed either somewhat or completely by spam concerns.

Consumers also expressed concern that spam filters block too many messages they want to receive. Twenty-five percent said filters blocked wanted messages, and just 17 percent thought they worked well.

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