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05/25/2003

American invasion

By Matt Moore
The Associated Press

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — 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 United States 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 Europeans receive, many contend it’s on the rise. Yet Europeans find little common ground on how to combat the American scourge.

In essence, Europeans are importing an American problem but not any tough solutions. Unlike the strictest laws in Virginia and other U.S. states, European Union rules don’t call for jail time.

At most, spammers are fined, but enforcement is left to individual countries. And although the EU rules cover spam sent from the United States and elsewhere, member countries lack both the resources — and the authority — to pursue violators abroad.

“The main culprits are international companies, but we have no way of stopping them,” said Cristina Garcia del Valle, a spokeswoman at 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 percent of spam comes from abroad, mostly the United States.

He notes that people’s e-mail addresses are widely sold in the United States. Similar lists are bought and sold in Europe, but not in a fever pitch like the United States.

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 Association.

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. 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.

Thus, there is no uniform way of punishing spammers, Mills said.

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

In the first such ruling ever in Denmark, a court earlier this month fined a Danish software company $2,200 for sending 156 unsolicited advertising messages. Some 50 consumers had complained.

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, due in part to Italy’s notoriously 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 hasn’t drawn many complaints.

In Germany, a planned meeting of the country’s Internet service providers in June will feature a session on technical improvements companies can develop to block spam.

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

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