New European laws come into force today aimed at ending every computer user's nightmare - the growing tide of "spam" that now accounts for 60 per cent of all e-mail.
But activists warn that it will have little or no effect, and could even make things worse because the law makes it difficult to prosecute spammers, levies small fines and only applies to offenders inside Europe. Most spam - unsolicited bulk e-mails sent to computer users - comes from the United States.
Under the new British laws, stemming from the EU's privacy and electronic communications directive, anyone who "spams" a personal e-mail address or mobile phone number to someone who has not "opted in" to receive the messages can be fined £5,000. Repeated offences could lead to a jury trial, which could carry an unlimited fine.
Steve Linford, of the London-based anti-spam organisation Spamhaus, said that the new law would make little difference. "The problem is that £5,000 is nothing to a spammer - we did explain to [legislators] that these people are making £20,000 per week," he said.
Research shows that internet users are increasingly put off by the pervasiveness of spam, and the problem has grown exponentially. The filtering company MessageLabs estimates that last year less than 10 per cent of e-mail worldwide was spam; now it is thought to be half of the total.
But despite the EU directive, a survey by Computeractive magazine released yesterday suggested that 88 per cent of British internet users believed that the new laws would not make any difference to the amount of spam they received. One problem highlighted by industry observers is that individuals will be powerless to prosecute spammers. They will have to pass their complaints to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC), which will carry the full responsibility for pursuing legal cases.
The OIC has already criticised the Department of Trade and Industry, which drafted the UK law, for granting it too little power to prosecute spammers. In September when Stephen Timms, the DTI's Communications minister, announced the law, he said it would "help combat the global nuisance of unsolicited e-mails and texts, by enshrining in law rights that give consumers more say over who can use their personal details".
The response from Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, was to call for stronger powers. A DTI review is already under way.
Spamhaus, working with other anti-spam organisations, has identified 200 spamming "gangs", almost all operating out of Florida. They are believed to generate at least 90 per cent of the total spam on the internet.
Mr Linford also warned that a US law due to come into force on 1 January would allow spammers to send bulk e-mail to anyone who had not "opted out" by replying to a particular e-mail address.
"That will mean that the amount of spam will just go through the roof," Mr Linford said.
Top 5 Spammers according to www.Spamhaus.org
1 Alan Ralsky
When his home address was published, he was subscribed to thousands of junk-mail lists in revenge.
2 Damon DeCrescenzo
Uses shell sites to advertise an online drugstore. All the drugstores are clones which lead back to his site.
3 Scott Richter
Took advantage of 11 September to immediately spam millions of computer users with adverts to "buy American flags".
4 Chris Smith
Recently moved his web hosting to China, which has tolerated many spammers.
5 Eddy Marin
Convicted on drugs charges. Started out with a porn dot-com featuring women and webcams, but found spamming generated better profits.
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