Spam discussion document covers bases

The New Zealand government's discussion document on stopping spam is even-handed on the need for a legislative approach but a law will be drafted if the minister responsible has anything to do with it.

The impact of other measures such as software filters, voluntary industry codes and education of the public are raised for discussion, but the government's opinion, as Associate IT Minister David Cunliffe expresses it, is uncompromising: "The government is committed to an anti-spam law", he says.

The document covers the bases familiar to anyone who has been following the spam debate over the past few years. The paper begins by discussing the nature of spam, such as whether messages have to be sent in bulk to qualify and whether they have to be "commercial".

It describes the extent of spam problems qualitatively (it takes up time at work, consumes bandwidth, can make fraudulent business offers and can offend), but admits it is hard to put a figure on the cost of the phenomenon.

"Estimates suggest the costs at the global level are high," says the report. "For example, a recent European Union (EU) study estimates that the worldwide cost to Internet subscribers of spam is in the vicinity of 10 billion euros a year. An American firm, Nucleus Research, estimated in 2003 that the economic cost is $US874 a year for every office worker with an e-mail account, which multiplied by 100 million workers in the U.S. amounts to about $US87 billion."

Existing possibly applicable law on privacy, harassment and misuse of computing facilities is identified, before moving on to discuss to what spectrum of material a law might apply and what it might say with regard to banning certain messages and requiring sender-identifying information and a functioning "unsubscribe" facility.

The advantages and disadvantages of the opt-in and opt-out approaches are discussed at length, and the desirability of banning the use and sale of address lists and tools for collecting address lists is raised.

The paper concludes by raising options for an appropriate body to police the law appropriate powers and penalties.

It is proposed that a joint government/InternetNZ industry workshop will be held during the consultation period (mid-May to June 30) as part of the consultation process.

The report can be read on the Ministry of Economic Development's Web site.

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