Spam debate gets airing

The Ministry of Economic Development will provide a clue to its thinking on spam in a paper to be presented at a conference in Auckland on Friday.

The Ministry of Economic Development will provide a clue to its thinking on spam in a paper to be presented at a conference in Auckland on Friday.

It follows airing of the issue in a National Radio programme on Sunday, in which IT minister Paul Swain held out little hope of a legislative fix.

MED IT policy group representative Brad Ward will talk about measures for countering spam at Netsafe II: Society, Safety & the Internet, a four-day conference beginning today. The conference, at the University of Auckland, is being staged by the Internet Safety Group and Police.

Spam hit the mainstream media in a lengthy segment of National Radio’s Sunday programme. Members of the public and the internet industry were interviewed.

While the degree of irritation in the street over spam varied, those in the industry were almost universal in pointing out its cost and dangers.

Some, such as InternetNZ councillor David Farrar, point out that it is not only a cost to everyday business in time and aggravation, but also threatens the integrity and openness of the email medium, leading subscribers to conceal their addresses, business users to impose filters and ISPs to block open relays. The last is generally seen as a “good thing”, but does detract from the easy opennesss of email communication in the early days, Farrar says.

InternetNZ executive director Peter Macaulay also said spam was “moving past the status of an annoyance” and threatening to “hurt” the network itself and its easy global flow of information.

In the face of these assembled views, IT minister Paul Swain maintained his unchanged advocacy of a “cautious” approach. Laws applied hastily overseas have in many cases not proved effective, he said. He did concede that he has “looked at” the recent Australian legislative proposals, and suggested something more concrete in the way of a New Zealand policy might emerge by the end of the year.

One drawback of law as primary remedy, he said, is that if a law is passed, people expect it to fix the problem. This is unlikely to be so in the case of spam, in view of the fact that most of it comes from overseas, and there are limitations to the degree to which governments can act internationally.

He also repeated his contention that it is difficult to define spam without trapping “legitimate” email marketing.

There are many priorities for government’s time, even in the restricted world of telecommunications, Swain said, mentioning drug trafficking and terrorism. Pornography, an area in which there has been considerable government action, was not mentioned.

Rob Zorn of ISP Actrix, pointed out, however, that a good deal of spam is pornographic.

Zorn and others discussed technical measures such as filters and the tagged message delivery agent (TDMA) program. This implements a barrage of anti-spam techniques including filtering, short-lived addresses, or addresses which only accept certain kinds of communication. For any messages that cannot be definitely placed by the system, the sender is sent a request to confirm the message as genuine; spammers usually don’t bother.

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