Spam chokes pollies into life

Could it be that the US Federal Trade Commission reads Computerworld New Zealand? Hardly. Yet in this column at the start of the year I wrote that the US needed to tackle spam to save email from being rendered useless as a communications tool.

Could it be that the US Federal Trade Commission reads Computerworld New Zealand? Hardly. Yet in this column at the start of the year I wrote that the US needed to tackle spam to save email from being rendered useless as a communications tool.

It seemed reasonable to direct the call to the US, where so much spam appears to originate. Last week, the FTC took action -- sort of -- staging a three-day Spam Forum to look at the problem.

I’m not intending to suggest that governments -- George Bush’s or our own -- make policy on the basis of what they read in the newspaper. But our own government looks to have changed its tune on spam in the past few months. In the same issue that we called on Uncle Sam to do something about the spam scourge, IT minister Paul Swain said that spam was in the legislative "too hard" basket. Last week, though, he told us he’d instructed officials to "contact their Australian counterparts" about plans to introduce anti-spam legislation, to see if similar laws could be applicable to New Zealand. Swain went on to say that effective efforts to curb spam would require a mixture of technical, educational and regulatory measures.

It’s reassuring to hear him say so, and a contrast to what has emanated from his office in response to our nagging on the subject. To this point, we were getting the distinct impression that spam was a particular obsession of Computerworld and the minister had much bigger problems on his plate.

Perhaps what's changed is that the problem has become so big he can now actually see it, even since January. One of the most persistent spam types I see is the variety headed "X MILLION EMAIL ADDRESSES -- PLUS OVER $2000 OF FREE EMAIL MARKETING SOFTWARE". I’ve watched that X grow from just a couple of million at the start of the year to 30 million -- about the population of Canada -- last week. The problem’s complexity has also become more apparent.

One of Swain’s reasons for suggesting legislative measures were a dead end was the international nature of the scourge. The impression is that most spam originates in the US. But in fact, as with legitimate internet-based businesses, spamming operations might be run from anywhere. In March, one "Captain Bob", a 19-year-old operating from his bedroom in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden, defended his spamming activities, for which he was paid at a rate of $US300 for every million addresses hit. A 14-year-old spammer quoted in the same New Zealand Herald story said he couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Hadn’t spam haters heard of the delete key? Yeah, but it’s spammers themselves we’d like to delete.

Filters are one technical approach to the issue, but if Computerworld’s experience is anything to go by, a very approximate one. The usual stuff still gets through. Another is to maintain spammer blacklists, and block their traffic. According to critics, this runs foul of the US’s cherished First Amendment about free speech. Some mailers might also be maliciously blacklisted. The US has a proposed federal law that would see senders of email containing false claims or invalid opt-out mechanisms fined up to $US500,000. This wouldn’t stop Captain Bob, who maintains he does delete addresses of those who ask to be removed from his list. Most, however, will not demand to be removed from spamming lists because they know it only confirms for the spammer that they have an active address.

The US law gets a mixed response from those trying to staunch the spam flow (which ISP Nortel Networks claims costs it $US10,000 a day). Support appears greater for those willing to take private legal action against spammers. There have been some notable successes on this front in the US, ISP Earthlink winning a $US25 million judgement in one case. There have been no similar actions in New Zealand.

But perhaps that’s what we need: Xtra, as the country’s richest ISP, and the one that delivers most spam, might like to choose a target, pursue it through the courts (under a newly minted Swain law) and put the wind up the rest of the spammers. Combined with technical solutions (one described to me last week claims a 95% success rate at 70 messages a second with just one in 80,000 false positives), email might be restored as the internet’s killer app, rather than be itself killed by spam.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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