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Europe may become a telemarketing-free zone, after a committee of Members of the European Parliament voted Nov. 21 to outlaw cold calling.

MEPs from all 15 member states and of all political persuasions voted almost unanimously in favor of changes to a new law governing distance selling that will forbid companies from contacting consumers via phone, fax and even e-mail without prior consent.

Their decision will guide the debate at the next plenary session of Parliament Dec. 11.

It is rare that Parliament goes against a position adopted by its lead committee-in this case the Environment Committee.

"The Parliament is not only flying in the face of commercial reality-but of the European Commission and Council of Ministers as well," said Sir Frank Rogers, chairman of the European Publishers Council.

The Council of Ministers voted against such a ban when it last debated the proposed law in the summer.

"These amendments would make telemarketing impossible and would therefore sound the death knell of the distance selling industry," he added.

Pressure for the restrictions was mounted by German MEPs, who are used to a ban on cold calling in their own country. But elsewhere in Europe, telemarketing is a developed industry, employing about 1.5 million full time.

In the U.K. alone the industry has an estimated expenditure of $16.2 billion.

The industry was taken by surprise when it emerged that Parliamentarians wanted a fight over the issue.

But during the past two weeks they have assembled a lobbying force comprising 16 trade associations representing industries including advertising, publishing and direct marketing to try to avert the problem.

"We have worked hard to educate MEPs about the impact of their amendments....but it's as if our efforts have gone in one ear and out the other," said one angry lobbyist who requested anonymity.

A ban on e-mailing without prior consent would slow down the development of the information superhighway in Europe, publishers said.

"The annoying thing is that despite being told otherwise, many MEPs on the Environment Committee think that e-mail recipients have to pay for incoming messages," the lobbyist said. "They don't understand what they are voting about."

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