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Consumer Protection (Unsolicited E-Mails)

Volume 406: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2003

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12.32 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the prevention of unsolicited commercial e-mail; to amend the Consumer Protection (Direct Selling) Regulations 2000; and for connected purposes.
Unsolicited commercial e-mails are a pestilential nuisance that threaten terminally to swamp and suffocate the world e-mail system, which is probably the biggest improvement in communications that the world has experienced since the invention of the telephone. Spam is now a multiplying giant parasite that threatens to destroy its host.

One hon. Member told me that when he returned from a Select Committee visit abroad his inbox was jammed with 600 e-mails—a common experience for hon. Members. Another hon. Member told me that he is so exasperated with the deluge of junk that he receives that he is threatening to change his URL to The only person I have ever known who claims to have benefited from spam is a gentleman who says that he bought every offer he received to enhance his maleness and now has a male appendage that is 43 m long. That neatly illustrates the preposterous and ridiculous claims made by spammers to enliven our love lives or to give us brides from Nigeria.

There is a much more sinister side to spam, however. A large number of spam messages are from companies offering medicinal drugs. We know that even under this country's strict rules about 2,000 people a year die from the use of prescribed drugs.

However, the drugs offered by spammers are not on prescription and are offered without any rules or regulations whatsoever. Most odious of all are the pornographic e-mails. It is estimated that three out of 10 unsolicited e-mails are pornographic. They are sent out on an entirely random basis, so are received by vulnerable people and children, and the images that they present are often distressing and damaging.

Spammers keep up their deception, lies and dissembling, and are constantly disguising their methods to get through filtering systems. The Member who received 600 e-mails, for example, has an efficient filtering system. The great danger is that the advantages that we gain as parliamentarians from e-mail might be destroyed if we had a filtering system that destroyed the legitimate vigorously expressed messages that we occasionally receive from our constituents. E-mail is a great boon for those of us who serve on international bodies such as the Council of Europe, as we can complete work in a short time—a matter of an hour—by sending reports abroad to be edited, corrected and commented on; previously, that would have taken many weeks.

Our open, universal system is already in danger of collapse. China has now virtually cut itself off from the world system. There is now another great wall of China—an electronic one—that keeps e-mails out because of the problems that have been experienced there. New Scientist reported last week that one of its journalists sent an e-mail to Texas and had it returned with the message:
"Your IP address is from a blacklisted country. Disconnecting."
The blacklisted country was the United Kingdom, so the system is imploding.

What can we do? Our role is to legislate—that is all that we can do. Twenty American states, eight European countries and the EU have passed much legislation. Heroic work has been done by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), who have campaigned against spam and are organising a spam summit on 1 July.

The purpose of my Bill is to make sure that we act in solidarity with states and countries that are trying to make sending unsolicited e-mail a prosecutable offence. There has been optimism about achieving that goal because of the successful action taken against junk faxes, which have now literally dried up. As for spamming, the rogue country in the free world is the United States of America. One individual there recently equipped his house to send a billion e-mails a day. He knows that if he gets one response for every 1 million e-mails sent he is still in profit. Unfortunately, we are up against the belief in America that free trade should be unfettered and
"red in tooth and claw".
In this case, however, that means the freedom of pornographers in their thousands to pollute the internet and the freedom of thousands of criminals to try to rob us. Action must therefore be universal and concerted.

The Bill seeks to amend consumer protection legislation to prohibit the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail, making it a criminal offence unless the consent of the recipient has been gained. That has already been done in Denmark and Austria. The main message, however, is that we must ensure that people who receive such e-mail are aware of the best way to discourage such e-mails being sent to them in future. There are measures that ordinary e-mail users can take—never make a list of e-mail addresses; never respond to spam at all and, in particular, to spam e-mail that instructs people to reply with the word "remove", as that is used by those who prowl the internet to gather new addresses; and never sign up to sites that promise to remove one's name, because the racket is that those names are used to confirm that there is someone at the other end.

Finally, I pay tribute to Steve Linford who, in many ways, has been conducting a successful one-man campaign against spam, but is now in despair. Although he has been adept at spotting spammers' new moves and devices, he said last week that the menace could bring the e-mail system juddering to a halt.

He thinks it may have only six months left. He says:
"The e-mail system is on the edge of meltdown."
Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Paul Flynn, Tony Lloyd, Mr. Win Griffiths, Michael Fabricant, David Taylor, Brian White, Mr. Andrew Dismore and Mr. Huw Edwards.