HL Deb 05 November 2003 vol 654 cc798-800

3.6 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to obtain the co-operation of the United States in the implementation of the new European Union directive on unsolicited e-mails.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government implemented the EU Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications on 18th September, bringing into force an opt-in regime for unsolicited commercial e-mail to individual Internet subscribers from 1lth December 2003. However, we recognise that the problem of spam e-mail is global. The UK has held discussions on spam with the US Administration and is currently active in discussions on this issue in wider global fora, including the OECD.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. He will be aware that more than 50 per cent of all global e-mail traffic now consists of spam and that it is reckoned that by February that proportion will rise to 70 per cent. That compares with a figure of just 8 per cent two years ago. However, does he agree that the opt-in regime under the EU directive is all very well but that it will be completely worthless unless the United States takes seriously its responsibility to stop all the junk that comes out of that country? A huge proportion of it apparently comes from Florida, where 200 spammers are sending 50 million e-mails each day. Why cannot everyone follow the admirable example of Italy, which has interpreted the EU directive in a way that makes everyone who sends e-mail advertising without the informed consent of the recipient guilty of an offence which can carry a gaol sentence of up to three years?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend has identified a substantial and, as he indicated, growing problem. That is why we are concerned to tackle the problem as best we can on an international and, indeed, global basis. A parliamentary committee visited the United States to try to impress upon that country that we in Europe regard opting-in as a crucial dimension of any legislation. We recognise that there is some federal activity in that respect and almost half the American states now have some controls over spam.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the better the controls in the European Union and the United States, the more one will drive the spammers to use sources and servers in places such as Kyrgyzstan and Russia, which they are already doing? Does he also agree that the effect of implementing controls in Florida, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, would simply be to expand the traffic in those places?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has just reinforced the point that I sought to make: we need to tackle this issue on a global basis because it is a global problem. However, as my noble friend Lord Faulkner indicated, at present a substantial amount of spam is generated from the United States, and it would certainly be enormously advantageous to all of us if the Americans could be persuaded to introduce federal legislation to tighten up in this area.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the totally satisfactory answer to this problem is not to have an e-mail address? Would the Government be minded to encourage a proactive policy of supporting a vigorous revival of letter writing, preferably by manuscript?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate tempts me to say that I still cultivate the art of letter writing. However, he will recognise that in this day and age all organisations, particularly organisations with an international dimension, use e-mails, including his Church which I am sure uses e-mails to a substantial extent.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, would the best answer be to get the Internet service providers to clean spam out of their systems as it comes through the e-mail system?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that would put an enormous demand on ISPs. We do not believe that that is an impost that can be enforced at the moment. Clearly, we expect organisations to provide opportunities for people to protect themselves against the incursion of spam. That is why we now have an opt-in regime in this country, as there is in Europe. If one does not want what are often superfluous e-mails one can take steps to protect oneself against them.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that there is a problem not only with e-mails, but also with unwanted advertising that comes through fax machines, very often throughout the night? Short of turning off fax machines and rendering them unusable, what steps does he suggest to avoid that?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Baroness has identified a growing problem in another area of developed technology. We need to move apace to protect the use of such technologies from enormously irritating material. I sympathise with her point, but as far as I am concerned, Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and the e-mail issue is the significant one at the moment.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a telephone number that one can ring or an address to which one can write to stop unsolicited fax messages? I should be very pleased to send that information to any noble Lord who would like it, if I can find it.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lady is right. That is exactly how one protects oneself against such unsolicited mail. One can ring the appropriate telephone number. I am grateful that she is helping to publicise that fact. Of course, at present that applies only to individuals and not to companies, but it is an advance and I am sure that many Members of the House will be duly grateful for that fact.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, would the Minister consider government action on e-mails that would suggest to the writers of programs for e-mails that there should be a "Return to sender" icon? On a lot of junk mail that is delivered through the post appear the words, "If undelivered return to" and I return it all to the senders who have to pay for the return postage. They soon get the message.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Baroness has identified a growing practice of consumer resistance to unsolicited mail of various kinds. I applaud her recommendation and hope that more of us take up her suggestion.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, during the war spam was tinned meat. Can the noble Lord tell me what spam means?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I was terrified that I would be asked for a definition of such names. I was ready to describe "cookies" and some of the other delightful concepts that are now used as shorthand for aspects of new technology. Spam refers to unsolicited mail.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House why the Government have fixed a derisory £5,000 penalty for this matter when the Italians—leaving aside the penalty of three years imprisonment as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner—have a fine of £66,000, which is much more proportionate to the amount of money involved in this trade?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, it has often been asserted—quite accurately—in the House that the British are significantly more law-abiding with regard to European directives than many other societies. We can be confident that with a fine at this level we shall fulfil the requirements of the directive. The Italians may believe that they need a greater deterrent.