Oom Paul should tackle spam too

IT Minister Paul Swain says using the law to knock spam on the head is too hard because of difficulty defining the stuff. One of the problems he sees is drawing a boundary between spam and legitimate business promotion. Perhaps I can help.

IT Minister Paul Swain says using the law to knock spam on the head is too hard (see Swain: no spam law in offing) because of difficulty defining the stuff. One of the problems he sees is drawing a boundary between spam and legitimate business promotion.

Perhaps I can help. Here’s a “first-cut” definition. Spam is any promotional message that is:

(1) unsolicited

(2) intrusive (trespassing on a channel whose primary use is person-to-person communication)

(3) issued in bulk in undifferentiated form to a large number of people who have not previously made known any specific interest in the subject

(4) persistent and repeated.

(5) a direct cost to the recipient (which reception of email is).

Classifying spam, admittedly has something of the "hippopotamus test" about it – unless you’re a zoologist you would find it hard to define a hippopotamus, but you immediately know one when you see one.

But defining spam presents probably less of a problem than classifying illegal pornography. Aware of the difficulty of definition in that case, government laid down guidelines and set up a body authorised to settle the details. Why not a small “spam classification authority” - perhaps an international one, to hit spam worldwide? There seems little difficulty getting international agreement and co-operation on at least the worst of porn, so why cannot the same principles be applied to this nuisance?

Furthermore, as our articles of last week showed, there are filter programs that are demonstrably more than 99% efficient at detecting and therefore effectively defining, or rather formalising the intuitive human definition of, spam. See, for example: www.paulgraham.com/spam.html

Graham’s work concentrates on the content of single messages, but a simple count of substantially identical messages will efficiently incorporate the “persistence” factor.

Legislation would say anything that does not pass a filter decreed from time to time to be the definitive filter, shall be classed as spam. A part-time commitee would probably have to be retained to handle appeals.

I disagree rather with my editor about Uncle Sam (see Uncle Sam should tackle spam). US attempts to tackle spam may have been patchy (spammers have been convicted for contravening some state legislation) and so far inconclusive in the case of the federal CanSpam act; but at least an effort has been made.

Swain says the New Zealand government will consider joining any international effort. I suggest New Zealand could get some kudos in the international community by taking a lead.

However, as Swain suggests, drawing the lines is difficult. We have a number of other dubious practices like mass physical letters to “the occupier” and the Direct Marketing Association’s tolerance of unverified “opt-in”, whereby someone else signs you up to receive spam. A preliminary email, saying “was this you who signed up? If so, send us a confirmatory mail” is a simple precaution against such deception – but the DMA refuses to insist its members do this.

Perhaps Swain is apprehensive that if government looks too hard at spam, it might have to consider the legitimacy of these other borderline tactics. And that might bring new business opposition to a government that is extremely sensitive to it.

Could it also be that a widespread fear of spam serves a purpose for governments. If internet users feel constrained from wandering into the net's more anarchic places for fear of ending up on some unsavoury email list, does that not deliver the public internet back into the hands of government, big business and big media? And that is perversely helpful to a government trying to preserve its national authority. Swain, of course, discounts such a suggestion.

Whatever the case may be, business is suffering from spam, Mr Swain. Do something, and the business community, and the customers who keep business thriving, could well be grateful in larger proportion than the few hard-selling companies that will complain.

Bell is a Wellington-based reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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