Only coordinated action by governments can curb the alarming rise in unsolicited bulk e-mails, or spam, a high-level seminar in Brussels was told on Monday.
The two-day meeting, organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission, was being held after the Mydoom e-mail worm infected more than one million computers around the world.
Mydoom underlined the vulnerability of computer systems to the ease with which malicious users can bring havoc through sending spam - a problem that Microsoft chief Bill Gates has promised to eradicate within two years.
But OECD deputy secretary-general Herwig Schloegl said governments had to act themselves before spam - which some estimates say now accounts for half of all e-mails - gets completely out of hand.
"We need a coordinated international drive to maintain consumer and business confidence in the Internet."
OECD Deputy secretary-general
"We need a coordinated international drive to maintain consumer and business confidence in the Internet," he said at the opening session of the Brussels seminar.
"Governments have an essential role to play both as policymakers and as users of e-mail themselves," he told delegates including US Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson and EU Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen.
The scale of the problem was highlighted by figures presented to the seminar:
- An EU study "estimates that the worldwide cost to Internet subscribers of spam is in the vicinity of 10 billion euros ($12.5 billion) a year".
- One survey suggested that 65 percent of Internet users spent more than 10 minutes per day killing spam.
- A US Federal Trade Commission report in April 2003 found that 66 percent of spam messages were fraudulent in some way.
Governments are slowly moving to tackle the spam menace. In November the US Congress agreed a law designed to rein in the spammers.
Computer users spend much time
deleting unsolicited messages
Without banning unsolicited e-mail, the law enables Internet users to have their e-mail addresses removed from mailing lists and also calls for heavy fines and prison terms for those sending messages of a fraudulent or pornographic nature without warning recipients.
For its part, the EU agreed a law two years ago banning commercial spam. But member states have been slow to implement the legislation, sparking warnings from the European Commission that more must be done.
"Spam is a global problem that requires global action," Liikanen told the seminar.
"If we want to combat spam effectively, efforts made in the European Union and other regions of the world must be echoed by similar efforts at the international level, not only by governments but also businesses and consumers," he said.
Thompson said the US Federal Trade Commission had taken the lead against spam, but stressed that legislation alone would not curb bulk e-mails.
He called for "strong law enforcement, industry-based initiatives and self-regulation, technology efforts, and better consumer education".
In a report for the seminar, the OECD, a grouping of the world's 30 richest countries, underlined that international action is needed given the global nature of the Internet and the difficulty in tracing spammers.