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Governments wrestle the spam dilemma

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Government officials and industry associations today met at the House of Commons to discuss possible solutions to the ever-expanding problem of unsolicited email.

The EU directive to fight spam, which becomes law in the UK in October, enforces an opt-in scheme so that commercial email can only be sent where the recipient has expressly agreed to receive that mail.

But the problem lies in enforcement. Firstly, EU law is only binding on European countries, so most of the areas from where spam originates - South East Asia and South America - are beyond the reach of the directive. Secondly, even within the EU there are no real rules on controlling and monitoring the opt-in clause, as implementation and enforcement are down to each member state.

"The recipient will have to have given permission, but we will not be checking where the sender acquired the recipients address from in the first place or how permission was granted," admitted Philip Gerrard, spokesman for the EU's Information Society.

Exact figures on how much of the world's internet traffic is junk mail are varied - generally pinpointed at between 30 to 70 percent - but all bodies recognise that this problem is getting worse. Antivirus firm Brightmail says spam now accounts for 48 percent of all messages across its networks, with adult content making up 19 percent of spam.

"When we developed email facilities we didn't predict that spam would be such a problem and therefore didn't build in solutions to prevent users sending anonymous emails," said Enrique Salem, spokesman at Brightmail. "What we need to do now is create transparency. If we know where these mails are coming from then we can block them."

Our current PC Advisor poll revealed that nearly a quarter (23.4 percent) of all emails received by readers are spam, while a third said that nearly all of their emails are junk, proving the ever-growing problem of unsolicited bulk email.

Spam filtering group Spamhaus estimates that 90 percent of the world's spam mail is generated by 200 identified servers, most of which are based in China and South America. It believes that by making their activities illegal, spammers will be forced further underground making it harder for them to operate.

"We don't want to legitimise spam and create rules like the US is doing, we want to make it illegal," said Spamhaus' Steven Linford.

Spamhaus has been working closely with Chinese ISPs over the last couple of years, encouraging them to bring in anti-spam policies as well as hand over the names of spammers to blacklists and international governments.

Microsoft is in the process of suing 15 spammers. It hopes that other ISPs and global companies will follow its lead, recognising that without a global effort the situation cannot improve.

"We're never going to get rid of spam but within the next two to three years it will become manageable," said Brightmail's Salem.

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