Act provides teeth to fight ‘big, bad’ spam

From September 5, the Anti-Spam Unit will be open to receive complaints about spam carrying unsolicited sexual content, as well as general complaints

Complaints about criminal spam in particular will be dealt with more forcefully from Wednesday when the anti-spam act, more formally known as the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act, comes into force.

The Department of Internal Affairs’ newly formed Anti-Spam Unit is currently touring the country, to inform both business and the public about spam and the effect the new act will have on it.

From Wednesday, the Anti-Spam Unit will also be open to receive complaints about spam carrying unsolicited sexual content, as well as general complaints, says Joe Stewart, who heads up the new unit.

The unit has been working closely with Internal Affairs’ IT team to build a secure complaints system that can handle the incoming complaints, with attached spam messages which may contain malware. This system is separate from Internal Affairs’ production systems.

Stewart’s unit will encourage voluntary compliance from identified New Zealand spammers, he says. “We will be actively monitoring and pursuing this.”

However, the anti-spam act will not be a silver bullet against spam, because 99% of spam comes from overseas, Stewart says. But the act will enable New Zealand to cooperate with international anti-spam agencies, for example the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), he says. At the moment, if the ACMA identifies a spammer in New Zealand, it will send information to Internal Affairs as a courtesy, but nothing could be done with the information.

Now, however, Internal Affairs will be able to act on such information by, for example, calling spammers and informing them that what they are doing is illegal, Stewart says.

“Spam is big, bad and messy,” says Stewart. “[Spammers] are not happy hackers or disaffected teenagers. They are organised people with criminal intent, making money.”

Primarily, it is these organised criminals the Anti-Spam Unit is after, not, for example, a Cancer Society sending out information about Daffodil Day, he says.

Feedback from the business community and the public has so far been generally positive, says Stewart.

But some companies, especially e-marketing firms, have concerns about two areas in particular, he says. These are “friend-get-friend” type marketing campaigns and the concept of “inferred consent” as it relates to existing databases.

There are so many nuances and combinations when it comes to marketing campaigns that, at this point, Stewart and his team can’t answer every single query emanating from what is a very creative industry, he says.

Stewart recommends going to the government’s anti-spam website, where in-depth, specific information, as well as FAQs (frequently asked questions) can be found. Stewart’s unit has so far received over 80 emails containing such questions.

But the e-marketing industry should not feel threatened, Stewart says. The underlying philosophy of the act is to implement good e-marketing practices, he says.

The anti-spam act does not come under the Crimes Act; instead, it is a penalties regime, and the act itself has a lot of discretion built in, Stewart says.

The unit encourages voluntary compliance with the act, but if someone carries on spamming that business or individual will receive a formal letter saying the spammer is breaching the act. The next step is a formal warning and, if that doesn’t work, court action will eventually be taken, says Stewart.

However, in Australia, it took a year for the first prosecution to be brought — so “don’t expect 500 people in the district court on day one”, he says.

Questions have also been raised by developers concerned that they risk being caught-out under third-party breaches of the act. But Stewart says this is unlikely.

“I’m not a lawyer, but, in my opinion, it is highly improbable,” he says.

The Anti-Spam Unit consists of two investigators, an IT technician and a data analyst.

Spam complaints can be made through the unit’s website, which is at www.antispam.govt.co.nz.

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Tags spamcriminalsanti-spam actUnsolicited Electronic Messages Act

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