Opinion: codes of practice require enforcement

How long will it be before the usage of email dies?

New Zealand’s Spam Code of Practice is insufficient in its present form and is purely cosmetic. There will be no visible improvement of services and ISPs will be allowed to ignore spam problems, as they will not be required to do anything material.

This should be corrected immediately.

Codes of Practice, or guidelines, are normally tailor-made to deal with the common problems of a particular trade. The disadvantage is that there are no direct methods of enforcement. Most clauses within any Code of Practice are open to interpretation, and provide no real guidance or direction in what to do in certain circumstances.

Taking either a “no action” stance or even an “inappropriate action” stance in any particular situation is not a breach of the code, as there is no requirement for the trade to do anything.

This lack of enforcement has been highlighted by the recent situation with state-owned energy company Mercury Energy and the tragic death of Folole Muliaga. Prime Minister Helen Clark hit the nail on the head when she revealed that SOE Minister Trevor Mallard asked Mercury Energy why it did not follow its Code of Practice for this situation and the response was there was “no requirement” to do so.

There are many unanswered questions regarding this case that are not relevant in this article, but the main question to keep in mind is “who is accountable?”

The ISP Spam Code of Practice is supposed to complement the Government’s new Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act in that it outlines the responsibilities of ISPs under a self-regulatory model. Both the Act and the Code of Practice are due to go live on September 5, 2007. The Code of Practice is now at the final public consultation stage and can be viewed on the InternetNZ website. Public comment was extended by a week, but closes soon.

However, the current draft uses passive and ambiguous wording and it will have little, if any, impact on internet service providers. It is nothing but a cosmetic gesture that favours the interests of the ISPs in that they will not have to do anything. Under this Code, the current influx of spam and other internet nasties will not change as it is not worded strongly enough to force ISPs to take responsibility and become accountable to their business and consumer customers.

There is no requirement for them to comply. After all, why should they increase their compliance costs if there is no requirement for them to comply in the first place?

As it stands, the Code of Practice recommends that ISPs make spam filters available, but the industry is well aware that spam filters will never be 100% effective, are costly to maintain, and are always at best one step behind the spammers.

Where is the inclusion or mention of other independent electronic messaging systems? Where is the requirement that ISPs should openly demonstrate their compliance with the code?

So how long will it be before the usage of email dies? The answer is — probably not too long. As long as ISPs continue to perpetuate the global pandemic of spam and internet nasties, the day will come when the dangers of email will force everyone to simply stop using it.

We currently have the perfect opportunity not to take an easy road and follow the crowd or to take a different road and get this issue right for NZ service providers and to the benefit of their customers — us. I strongly recommend the the Code becomes less cosmetic and introduces practical enforcement requiring internet service providers to become more accountable.

If the Code goes live in its current format, nothing will change. Service providers will simply ignore it.

- Neil Sherratt is the chief executive of Bizibox and co-founder of UK-based Saturn IQ, which developed the IQ Confidential messaging system. Bizibox is based in Havelock North, Hawkes Bay.

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