Germany is set to follow the recent decision by the United States to implement legislation to prosecute anyone found guilty of distributing junk e-mails, known as spam.
Spam is clogging up cyberspace and people's inboxes.
Germany's Social Democrat (SPD) government announced on Monday that it plans to introduce an "Anti Spam" law in an attempt to stem the tide of unsolicited junk e-mails that is costing the country millions of euros.
The law will be Germany's first attempt at introducing a successful and effective punishment for those unscrupulous companies who bombard inboxes with undesirable advertising mails. The laws that the SPD intend to bring in at the start of April will consist of punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment for the worst offenders.
Germany was one of the countries criticized last year by the European Commission for not implementing spam restrictions in accordance with an EU directive. Along with Belgium, Greece, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Finland and Sweden, Germany failed to adopt the privacy law which would have helped in the EU's fight against unwanted e-mail.
"We urge member states to adopt a consistent legislative approach to such issues as unsolicited e-mails, the use of location data or cookies," said Erkki Liikanen, EU Commissioner for Enterprise and the Information Society in December. "This will strengthen consumer confidence in e-commerce and electronic services, which is a prerequisite for sustainable growth in the sector," he added.
Spam makes up over half of EU's email
At the end of last year, a European Union taskforce on spam estimated that over 50 percent of all e-mail sent in the EU was unwanted advertising. Experts calculated that the annual cost for European firms attempting to prevent and extinguish undesirable messages was around €2.5 billion.
The German move to block spam follows a similar introduction of legislation that was pushed through in the United States at the end of 2003. The first federal law regulating spam, called the Can-Spam Act, took effect on January 1, 2004. Instead of banning unwanted e-mail, Can-Spam instead laid down a complex set of rules -- such as honoring unsubscribe requests -- that spammers must follow.
Germany looking towards U.S. model?
Under Can-Spam, the U.S. Justice Department and federal prosecutors around the country can file criminal charges against those spammers who commit crimes such as misleading consumers and using false information when buying a domain or signing up for a web mail account. The fines which can be handed down under the U.S. law can be as heavy as $1 million as well as prison sentences for as much as five years.
However, if Germany is looking towards the U.S. model as a lead in the fight against spam then it should also consider its limitations. Experts who have been monitoring the effects of Can-Spam claim that the sanctions are unlikely to stop the flow of bulk solicitations that are flooding into email in-boxes.
How effective are criminal laws?
Criminal laws "haven't done much to deter virus writers and hackers," said Anthony Teelucksingh, an attorney in the U.S. Justice Department's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section to reporters at a workshop organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "I don't think that criminal prosecutions, even that many of them, will put that big a dent" in spam, he said.
Don Blumenthal, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and director of its internet lab, echoed Teelucksingh's cautionary tone. "Can-Spam is not going to solve the problem," he said and concluded, "Spam's going to rule our world in the near future."
Danger to legitimate businesses
Germany should be aware that companies who make a living from legitimate online businesses are suffering under the new laws in the United States.
"The cost of reaching consumers is going up, while response is down," said Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the U.S. Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in an interview with Computer Weekly magazine.
Under the law, companies have to clearly label their messages as a commercial, cannot use false or misleading head and subject lines, and are forbidden from harvesting e-mail addresses from online sources. They must also offer users clear opt-out mechanisms, provide them with a physical contact address and maintain lists of users who don't want to be contacted via e-mail.
Authorized commercial mail under attack
The situation in the United States is so extreme that even commercial e-mail that a consumer might have consented to receive -- such as online bills -- is sometimes blocked, either by consumers themselves or by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) acting on their behalf. "We've got to figure out spam or else e-mail (marketing) is going to die," said Cerasale.
It is a balance the German government is going to want to get right: saving money that is spent dealing with junk mail and making sure businesses that rely on an Internet presence for their sales don't suffer.