British Propose Opt-In E-Mail Regulation

Officials in the United Kingdom have laid out plans that would severely limit unsolicited electronic communications, part of an effort to fight spam and unwanted SMS marketing.

“Just as the Internet and mobile technology have become a firm feature of our lives, spam is threatening that status. It is in danger of becoming a real deterrent to online communication,” E-Commerce Minister Stephen Timms said in announcing the proposals. “When used properly, direct marketing is a powerful business tool. But badly targeted messages, whether by email, phone, fax or text are a global concern. Not only are they a great nuisance, they are eroding trust in legitimate and valuable business services.”

The government’s proposals are aimed at implementing the European Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, a wide-ranging document passed in 1999 by the European Parliament.

Currently the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is seeking public comment on the proposals, which require businesses to obtain explicit opt-in permission before initiating electronic communication, except when there is an existing customer relationship. They also require that businesses clearly indicate when they’re using “cookies” or other tracking devices, and allow users to reject them. Companies failing to comply could face government penalties, or could be sued by the individuals who receive unsolicited commercial email.

E-mails and SMS messages sent on an opt-out basis would be allowed, provided a previous relationship between the company and the customer existed. The question of what constitutes a “previous relationship,” however, will be part of the discussion.

The British government is seeking input on its proposals though June 19. It will take comments into consideration and enforcement will likely begin October 31.

The British Direct Marketing Association has said it welcomes the chance to give input, and is chiefly concerned that companies in the United Kingdom not be disadvantaged when competing with others that need not comply with such rules. It has also expressed concern that small businesses may be harmed by excessive regulation.

“This is a crucial time for the email marketing industry,” the British DMA said in a statement. “Innovation and creativity may be stifled by excessive regulation, and the DMA therefore urges the DTI to ensure an appropriate balance between commercial freedom and consumer interests.”

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