Opt-out system is the right way to tackle spam

This month’s decision by the European Union not to ban unsolicited e-mail, with the rider that consumers can sign an “opt-out” register, is a vote for common sense.

Junk e-mail, or “spam” as it is colloquially known, has become the online equivalent of junk mail which, like spamming, breaks all the rules of direct marketing.

There is no targeting and no opportunity to create a meaningful dialogue or relationship with customers.

Solicited e-mailing, which has personalised content and relevance to the receiver, is an entirely different approach to the unpredictability of the spammer.

Typical examples of spam are e-mails promoting porn sites or US pyramid sales. Committed spammers are difficult to stop, whether ISPs take blocking action or, as in the case of Virgin, they try the legal route (Virgin Net is currently suing a businessman who sent out a 250,000 junk e-mails selling e-mail addresses, leading to hundreds of complaints).

Those companies which employ solicited e-mailing techniques to communicate directly with existing or potential customers cannot be equated with spammers. They want to do legitimate business with groups of people who are most likely to respond.

This is at the heart of e-commerce, now the single most powerful motor of the Internet.

While groups such as EuroISPA and Cauce argue for tougher rules and an “opt-in” system, this is just posturing and wouldn’t stop the committed spammer. It would also go against the logical decisions taken in other related areas, where consumers have been given opt-out regulators which ensure the individual’s decision is respected. The Mailing Preference Service and the Telephone Preference Service are good examples of this type of scheme.

We should not accept a regulation which stops us receiving information that could be useful to us. You don’t have to respond to it, you don’t even have to read it – but not to allow that opportunity to happen would defy reason.

The EU, another name that many like to hiss at, has made a decision that reflects what is happening in the real world. A world in which the Internet has moved a long way from its academic roots and is now another commercial medium open to all.

Matthew Eccles is managing director of WWAV Rapp Collins

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