THE government's "Spam tsar" is running up the white flag in the war against junk e-mail, warning that the only way to stop unwanted messages is to buy blocking software for computers.
Two years after the government introduced new laws which were hailed as a major crackdown on the menace of junk messages, no one has been prosecuted for sending spam which is estimated to cost British businesses 1.3bn a year. Instead, the tide of unwanted e-mails is as strong as ever, exposing children to offensive messages and slowing down machines and networks. Some users receive more than 100 junk e-mails a day.
A spokeswoman for the government's Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, admitted even he is being spammed. Critics say the current law is too weak to protect computer users from being deluged by unwanted messages.
The spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner said: "There have been no prosecutions or notices served. We have been in touch with some companies, but the fact is that most spam comes from abroad. The solution is going to be technological rather than through legislation, such as anti-spam software for computers."
It means computer users will have to spend up to 40 on anti-spam software, or make sure that they are signed up to e-mail providers that will screen out unwanted messages.
But the admission has enraged many in the computing industry who believe the government has been passing the buck and not taking the opportunity to make laws tougher.
Critics believe that a fatal weakness in the existing legislation is that it only applies to companies and their direct marketing campaigns to members of the public. Businesses must make sure that they only send out marketing messages to consumers who have opted to receive their e-mails.
But the law does not protect business accounts from being spammed, and critics say that even if fines were levied they would be almost laughably small. The maximum fine is 5,000 - less, according to computer industry insiders, than a dedicated spammer can make in a day of junk e-mailing.
Mike Simons, news editor of IT industry magazine Computer Weekly, said: "We have had a long-running campaign for tougher anti-spam laws and our readers will be extremely disappointed about the failure to take action. Spam costs our readers a lot of time and money." Simons also dismissed the popular image of vast amounts of spam being sent from computers in countries where there is little or no regulation, such as Eastern Europe, the Far East or Africa.
He said: "The vast majority of spam comes from the United States. And it should not be difficult to work out laws which would protect users."
A study published this year found that junk e-mail costs businesses in the UK 1.3bn a year in lost productivity, IT costs and helpdesk charges - equivalent to 22 per user per year.
The study, by Ferris Research, also found that UK firms receive more spam than businesses in France, Germany, Italy and China.
The research also said that while anti-spam software can screen out large amounts of unwanted e-mails, they have the unwanted side-effect of blocking a small number of legitimate e-mails. As many as 1% of genuine messages might be blocked, equivalent to about five "false positives" a week.