Data Commissioner ponders spam prosecutions

14 Dec 2004

The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) is in the process of investigating several cases of spam email that could result in prosecutions early next year, has learned.

These would be the first court proceedings against spammers to be taken in the State. Assistant commissioner Nelius Lynch confirmed that the DPC has yet to take a case but under Irish law the office has the power to prosecute offenders in the District Court. Several investigations are currently under way following complaints from the public throughout the year and some are nearing conclusion.

Close to 120 individuals in Ireland contacted the DPC in 2004 and some of these complaints refer to a number of spam campaigns, it is believed. “There is a fair degree of awareness of the fact that we are responsible for [dealing with] spam,” said Lynch. “At the same time, we also tell complainants about the realistic chances of taking a case, so sometimes they might decide not to pursue it.”

If prosecuted, senders of spam email can be fined €3,000 per message. Not all complaints investigated wil result in prosecution proceedings, Lynch pointed out.

In a related development, the DPC in Ireland has been participating in a new cross-border initiative to curb the growth of junk email. Called the London Action Plan (LAP), it is an international scheme to communicate and co-operate on enforcement action to tackle spam. The plan was agreed at the London international spam enforcement workshop organised by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading and the US Federal Trade Commission. The agreement was signed by 19 bodies from 15 countries including Australia, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Korea, the UK and the US.

“The agreement acknowledges that legislation on its own doesn’t work and technical solutions on their own don’t work, it’s a combination of both,” said Lynch. Spam has a strong international element as it typically originates in one place but is often received in several others. Lynch said that the LAP should ease the difficulty of gathering evidence across different jurisdictions to prosecute spammers successfully.

The signatories of the plan have agreed to share information and to participate in regular conference calls to discuss cases, legislative developments, investigative techniques and public education projects. “Gathering information to make a prosecution that sticks takes time and it’s a new area for data protection authorities,” said Lynch. “We are learning new skills to get involved and becoming familiar with how people who send spam operate.”

By Gordon Smith