Back in the early days of email – and it was only in the mid-1990s – spam was not a problem. Unsolicited, unwanted email was rare, and any ‘spammers' were ‘flamed' (blasted with retaliatory hate mail) by the new, community-minded citizens of cyberspace.
But that was too good to last. Spammers not only learned tricks to prevent identification and retaliation, but they also benefited from the compelling economics of mass email marketing. Legitimate businesses could not ignore the opportunity, and added to the weight of email.
By 2003, spam was ubiquitous, and was costing European businesses $2.5 billion a year to deal with, according to Ferris Research, a US-based research company.
With technology struggling to control spam, both the European Union and the US government banned the practice. In the US, the Can Spam Act is clearly targeted at cynical spammers and pornographers (see page 30), and scarcely affects legitimate businesses.
But in Europe, the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications is much broader, and affects all businesses that use electronic media for direct marketing – even those communicating to their own customers. The law covers phone calls as well as emails and interactions between web sites and their visitors.
The law is having a significant impact on the way legitimate businesses gather and record data on customers, and how they interact with them through email and the web. This has made it unpopular, and in some European states, there is clearly little inclination among governments to enforce the law.
In the UK, the Direct Marketing Association views the directive as an onerous law that will do more to restrict European businesses' marketing practices than reduce the flow of spam. It points out that 90% of spam comes from outside the EU region, the majority from the US.
Most of the controversy centres on the use of email data. Many businesses communicate to their customers and partners by email, but the law now makes it difficult for them to email these individuals and cross-sell them services from other parts of their business. According to law firm Eversheds, businesses can target customers who have bought products or services from them in the past, subject to a handful of provisos. For example, a customer's details must have been collected in the context of a ‘sale', and at that time, they must have been told about the possible use of their data for marketing.
In addition, there is also a legitimate direct marketing industry that sells customer data, including emails, that has effectively been outlawed. Researchers report that ‘opt in' rates for receiving promotional emails are below 10%. These businesses are now seeking ever more creative ways of circumnavigating the law – such as offering free goods or services in return for marketing permissions.