US law to cut junk e-mail will give big boost to spammers, warns UK expert

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The world's e-mail systems will go into meltdown next year through "spam overload" caused by American legislation intended to solve the problem, Britain's top spam-fighter warned yesterday.

Within 18 months, e-mail could itself be dead, with 99 out of 100 messages being junk, and an e-mail being less certain to arrive at its destination than a letter or a text message, said Steve Linford, the head of the Spamhaus Project, a company that tracks and identifies the world's worst spammers.

He told an anti-spam summit of industry and MPs in London that the US was about to introduce legislation that would make spam legal unless the receiver opted out of receiving it. That, he said, would legitimise all the spammers that were currently illegal.

Spamhaus has established that 90 per cent of the spam sent to US and European internet users originates from 200 spammers, mostly based in Florida. "They have said when that [law] happens they will ramp up their output," said Mr Linford. "Presently they might have 15 or 20 e-mail servers pumping out millions of pieces of spam every day. But when this goes through, they'll ramp it up to 200 servers."

The legislation, called the "Can Spam" act, is being put forward by W J "Billy" Tauzin, the head of the House of Representatives' energy and commerce committee.

The US Direct Marketing Association, a powerful lobby group, commended the bill, while anti-spam organisations criticised it as a licence to send out junk e-mails to virtually anyone. The law has been passed by committees in the Senate and House of Representatives and could become law this year.

Derek Wyatt, the MP who organised the summit on behalf of the All-Party Internet Group, said: "The prospect of a meltdown is scary. But Steve Linford is one person who would know." Computers can generate millions of e-mail messages a day and the economies of spam mean a success rate of one in a million can pay for an entire day's work.

The scale of spam is already making the internet creak. Enrique Salem, the chief executive of Brightmail, which provides anti-spam systems for companies including Hotmail and British Telecom, said that in May, 48 per cent of the 63 billion messages it monitored on the Net were spam. Mr Salem forecast that on present trends the figure would increase to 65 per cent next year.

EU countries will introduce anti-spam legislation this year that will require an "opt-in" approach. But European nationals will have no redress against US-based spammers exploiting an opt-out law.