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U.K. spammers elude shutdown

Companies that break Britain's antispam law are likely to get away with it until at least next year because the information commissioner doesn't have "stop now" powers.

Legislation passed last year to clamp down on U.K. companies that send unsolicited e-mail over the Internet is unlikely to result in any prosecutions until 2005.

The Information Commissioner's Office, which applies the Privacy and Electronic Communication regulations, said that it needs stronger powers to act against suspected transgressors. Without these additional sanctions, companies are free to continue sending email over the Internet while they are investigated--a process that can take many months.

"It's possible there could be a prosecution towards the end of this year, in November or December. But realistically we are looking at next year," a representative for the information commissioner said Thursday.

The Privacy and Electronic Communication regulations, which came into force in December, make it illegal to send an unsolicited e-mail to anyone that the sender doesn't already have business relationship with. The Information Commissioner's Office has already received complaints from U.K. citizens claiming they've been spammed, but admits that it is not in a position to take action speedily.

"It's not because we've not had any complaints, or aren't conducting any investigations. It's because we don't have the powers to act quickly," said the representative for the information commissioner. "We're keen to have stronger powers to be faster and more effective in cracking down on people who break the regulations. But we haven't been given them yet."

Before the government finished writing the law last year, the Information Commissioner's Office said that it wanted "stop now" powers, in which a company suspected of spamming would be blocked from sending marketing messages by e-mail while the case was investigated.

The government decided against this.

Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, is apparently pushing for an expansion of his office's powers. The government has not yet made a decision.

"The Department of Trade and Industry is committed to reviewing the information commissioner's powers to enforce the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations," said a department representative.

A survey published by Pitney Bowes this week asserted that half of U.K. companies are failing to comply with the Privacy and Electronic Communication regulations. Pitney Bowes surveyed the top 50 companies in the telecommunications, publishing, banking, insurance and retail sectors. It found that almost half of the companies fail to ask non-customers to actively opt in to marketing e-mails. The new law says that companies cannot use the old practice of relying on opt-out check boxes.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.