Spam has become a worldwide scourge that costs businesses and individuals nerves as well as billions of euros each year. A European Union ban comes into effect on Oct. 31 but it won't do much to dam the flood.
Spam: a worldwide plague -- virtually
It takes six minutes a day for your average U.S. employee to free an inbox of unsolicited and unwanted commercial e-mails, otherwise known as spam.
Every other e-mail sent worldwide is junk mail, one of those messages promising the potency of a hare, the diet of a century or riches that would make even Bill Gates seem a pauper. Help -- that is, relief from spam -- may be on the way.
A European Union anti-spam conference meeting in Brussels on Thursday is discussing how to effectively apply the EU ban on spam and quickly halt the onslaught of digital detritus.
"Combating spam has become a matter for us all and has become one of the most significant issues facing the Internet today," European Commissioner for the Information Society Erkki Liikanen said earlier this year. "The EU, Member States, industry and consumers all have a role to play in the fight against spam both at the national and international level. We must act before users of e-mails or SMS stop using the Internet or mobile services, or refrain from using it to the extent that they otherwise would."
Liikanen introduced a directive banning spam in the EU in the summer. Since then it's been up to member states to write the Brussels directive into law by Oct. 31, 2003. Under the new law, advertisers may only send commercial e-mails, faxes or text messages to EU citizens who specifically say they want it.
But the "opt-in" regime, as it is called, so far hasn't worked.
Each week e-mail users in Germany receive 500 million junk messages. German law allows people afflicted by spam to pursue their tormenters, but it's usually virtually impossible to track them down.
"We can only contain the problem through an ambitious combination of legal, technical and educational measures, but above all through close international cooperation," said Patrick von Braunmühl of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.
The EU directive, however, only applies to e-mails that are sent or received within the Union, which means that spammers from the United States or Asia who send the majority of the junk mail can legally continue clogging European pipes with their undesired missives.
Observers hope to tackle that remaining challenge in December, when the World Summit on the Information Society meets in Geneva. There, international consumer groups hope to pass anti-spam measures.
A disservice costing billions ´
Until effective action can be taken, spam will continue to plague Internet users. Businesses and individuals spend more and more time deleting junk mail, and the cost in lost productivity is already tremendous. Within the EU alone companies lost an estimated €2.5 billion ($2.9 billion) in 2002.
But spam is good news for some. Companies that make e-mail filters are experiencing a heyday. Profits from the sale of junk mail filters could quadruple and reach nearly $1 billion by 2007, the tech research firm International Data Corporation recently forecast. Sales in 2003 are expected to reach €236 million.