Europe waffles on spam; holds the cookies

A Europe-wide measure on direct marketing via e-mail appeared less likely than ever to win approval Tuesday, as the European Parliament failed to agree whether marketers should be allowed to send unsolicited messages to potential customers.

"Neither side won this argument. A political compromise was reached which leaves the decision on whether to apply an opt-in or an opt-out approach up to the member states of the European Union," said Graham Watson, a member of the European Parliament (MEP).

Watson favors the opt-in approach, which would force marketers to obtain prior consent from potential customers before sending them any advertising material to their e-mail inbox. The direct marketing industry prefers the opt-out approach, which would allow marketers to send mass e-mailings, commonly called "spam," without prior consent.

"This decision is a victory for companies depending on targeted e-mail in their commercial communications strategy," said Axel Tandberg, EU affairs manager at FEDMA, the European direct marketing federation. "It appears that the European Parliament recognizes the difference between spamming and targeted direct mail via e-mail."

Spam is one of the rancorous topics covered by the draft directive on data protection for telecommunication. Another topic that split parliamentarians is cookies -- small text files that automatically download to people's computers from Web sites, allowing the sites to install shortcuts thenext time that person visits the site. Cookies also can be used to track where users go on the Web and can allow sites to share information about users without their knowledge, and can be used to trigger pop-up ads related to Web sites.

Parliamentarians voted to prohibit all cookies unless they are designed purely to facilitate the technical workings of the Web site, said MEP Marco Cappato.

"I voted against this amendment because it is too vague about the important privacy questions raised by cookies," he said.

FEDMA holds a different view.

"We are disappointed that the amendment limited cookies was pushed through," Tandberg said. "It means that Web sites will be unable to change ads attached to the site when a visitor returns to that site. Cookies allow Web sites to change ads and even limit ads to return visitors so that they don't see the same old ads every time."

The vote in the European Parliament comes at an early stage in the legislative process for the data protection code. Government ministers will debate the draft directive, probably before the end of this year. If they take a different position than the one adopted by the Parliament Tuesday, the two houses may have to open a conciliation procedure reach a compromise.

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