HL Deb 06 May 2003 vol 647 cc946-8

2.59 p.m.

Lord Mitchell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their plans to reduce the growth in spam (unsolicited e-mails).

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I hope noble Lords will appreciate how I move seamlessly from corned beef to spam.

We aim to implement by the end of October this year the privacy and electronic communications directive. This includes requirements that unsolicited e-mails may be sent to individuals only for the purpose of direct marketing with their prior consent, except where there is existing customer relationship between the sender and the addressee. Consultation on the draft regulations started on 27th March and closes on 19th June.

Lord Mitchell

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. Unsolicited e-mails, known as "spam", now account for half of all e-mails in this country. In the United States, they account for 70 per cent. Spam, whether it is nuisance advertising or hardcore pornography is literally choking the Internet. Will the Minister expand on his Answer? Do the Government intend to follow the example of the United States Senate in introducing legislation specifically prohibiting unsolicited e-mails?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we believe this to be a serious issue. The fact that a European regime has now been agreed opens the door to bilateral agreements between the EU and other countries, which is clearly very helpful. The European Commission is keen to pursue that.

There is now a big movement to stop spam in the United States. Twenty-six states have legislated and, although I do not believe that any action has been taken at the federal level, there has been a recent forum from the Federal Trade Commission on the subject.

We take the matter seriously. If measures are to be effective, it is vitally important that the international dimension is taken account of.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the Minister explain how it is that an inedible tinned food that lasted for ever and was supplied to those on active service can become an unsolicited e-mail, bearing in mind that some of us wish to be protected from having an e-mail?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am afraid that I have not been able to find out why the term "spam" is used, but that is the meaning it now has. It is a matter that should be taken very seriously because it not only clutters up computers but involves a great deal of very unpleasant advertising to do with easy credit, pornography and miracle diets. That is offensive to people, and we should try to reduce it.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I can help the Minister with the origin of the word. It comes from aficionados of Monty Python, and the famous song, "Spam, spam, spam, spam". It has been picked up by the Internet community and is used as a description of rubbish on the Internet.

More seriously, is the Minister aware that up to 85,000 pieces of unsolicited e-mail are received by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate each month? Will he join me in congratulating the directorate on its valiant efforts to filter out that menace, given that a high proportion of it is rubbish advertising from the United States and that some of it consists of profane material? The directorate is battling against a rising tide; the Government's assistance is needed in combating it.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am happy to commend that course of action. As I say, it is a serious issue. We need to take all steps against it.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, given the Government's concern about voter turnout in elections and their commitment to increasing the use of Internet voting and campaigning, does the Minister consider that further restrictions on unsolicited e-mails would be contrary to that objective?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, no, not at all. I cannot see that it helps anyone in any activity, including voting, to have their computers flooded with this often quite distasteful material. It takes up a large capacity—some 40 per cent of e-mails around the world, according to my figures. It takes up a considerable amount of space for Internet service providers and is a very poor use of the infrastructure.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, do the Government have any plans to restrict unsolicited faxes? My fax paper is always being wasted by people who send me faxes I do not want. I do not know whether they could be called "corned beef' or something, but I have had enough of them.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, faxes are already covered, in exactly the same way, by the existing telecoms data protection directive. The essential nature of the privacy directive is to extend that into the question of e-mails.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that modern fax machines are equipped to refuse faxes that have no return telephone number? In that way, many unsolicited faxes are filtered out. Is there any way in which the Internet system could operate similarly? For example, can the Internet service providers filter out e-mails that do not have a return address on them?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, there is a lot of action that Internet service providers can take to help customers to protect themselves. They can and indeed do offer spam filtering and blocking options. However, we do not want to specify what ISPs must do, because different people require different levels of protection. There is a strong commercial incentive to ISPs to offer a range of solutions, and they are keen to do so to cut costs.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister think of a name for the enormous amount of unsolicited ordinary mail we receive?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, when I have a moment I shall bend my mind to that question.