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Europe Blames the U.S. for Its Spam Invasion

Most nations lack the resources and authority to stop the unwanted junk e-mails, most of which are in English.

June 01, 2003|Matt Moore | Associated Press Writer

STOCKHOLM — The junk e-mail plaguing Europe has something decidedly in common with the American variety.

Nearly all the spam messages are in English, originate in the U.S. and don't even bother to price their wares in euros.

"It's always some unbelievable business opportunity, which is what we get from America," said Olle Thylander of the Swedish University Computer Network, a Stockholm-based group that oversees Internet traffic for Swedish universities.

Although there are no complete figures about the volume of spam that Europeans receive, many contend that it's on the rise. But Europeans find little common ground on how to combat the American scourge.

In essence, Europeans are importing an American problem but no tough solutions. Unlike the strict laws in some states, European Union rules don't call for jail time.

At most, spammers are fined, but enforcement is left to individual countries. Although EU rules cover spam sent from the U.S. and elsewhere, member countries lack the resources and authority to pursue violators.

"The main culprits are international companies, but we have no way of stopping them," said Cristina Garcia del Valle of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology.

Jens Storm Lernoe, who oversees Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Hotmail operations in Denmark, estimates that more than 95% of spam comes from abroad, mostly from the United States.

He notes that people's e-mail addresses are widely sold in the U.S. Similar lists are bought and sold in Europe, but not at a fever pitch like the U.S.

Spammers may be reluctant to base themselves in Europe because countries are smaller and it's more difficult to anonymously ply a trade that upsets so many people.

"There have been corporations here marketing via e-mail, but the negative feedback was so great -- they stopped," said Linnar Viik, a technology professor in Tallinn, Estonia. "You avoid the tools that will annoy your potential customers, especially when they may live nearby."

Europeans also tend to hold personal privacy more dearly than Americans.

"The Net is getting more mature, but more and more users here are feeling uncomfortable about it," said Girt Birnbacher, chairman of the Danish eBusiness Assn.

Many blame the Americans.

"It's not apparently from the United States. It is from the United States," said Mario Mariania of Tiscali SpA, one of Europe's largest Internet service providers.

Unlike laws prevalent in U.S. states, statutes in Europe generally require companies that send unsolicited e-mail to first seek permission unless they already have a commercial relationship with the recipient.

But enforcement varies.

"The directives say what the goal is, but the actual details are left to each member state," said George Mills, chairman of the European Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.

Fines in Italy average $280 for repeat offenders, while in Spain, spammers can be fined more than $34,000, although they seldom are.

In the first such ruling in Denmark, a court in May fined a Danish software company $2,200 for sending 156 unsolicited advertising messages.

Stefano Rodota, head of the Italian office that protects citizens' privacy, said his European colleagues "have said we need many more measures to prevent what is happening in the United States, so we are reacting."

The agency has filed criminal charges against compulsive spammers, but none have been convicted, in part because of Italy's slow legal system.

Some countries simply haven't made spam a priority yet.

In the Netherlands, Justice Ministry spokesman Victor Holtus said no laws or guidelines are being developed because the issue has drawn few complaints.

Harald Summa, general manager of Germany's Electronic Commerce Forum, said German ISPs have tried to respond to consumer complaints and points the blame to the United States.

His group has found that 35% of all e-mail spam in Germany comes from the United States, with another 7% from China.

"It's a problem of American marketing," Summa said. "It's so aggressive."

AP writers Mans Hulden, Stacy Meichtry and Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck contributed to this report.

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