Uncle Sam should tackle spam

Will 2003 be the year in which we begin to win the war on spam? If George Bush would only get his mind off Iraq, he could devote some attention to laws that would knock the platoons of US-based spammers on the head. Fat chance.

Will 2003 be the year in which we begin to win the war on spam? If George Bush would only get his mind off Iraq, he could devote some attention to laws that would knock the platoons of US-based spammers on the head. Fat chance.

I don’t know about you but spam is close to rendering email useless as a communications tool for me. Anyone whose email address has appeared on the web, once a useful form of customer service, is fair game for spammers, who harvest such addresses for their databases of "prospects". (And how about this for an irony: I used to complain that the version of Lotus Notes IDG was running lacked a working out-of-office notification feature; it’s fixed in our current version and, having been on holiday for the past month, has helpfully informed dozens of new spammers that my address is live. You can’t win.)

My holiday was a sentimental journey around the South Island by car, touring childhood haunts. With three kids in the back, with much less interest in the sights than their parents, it could have been hell. But we thank Nintendo and its Game Boy for keeping the peace.

I had my own electronic distraction in the form of a notebook computer and CDMA connection. I thought it worth taking an unwelcome reminder of the office with me for the sake of seeing how extensive Telecom’s CDMA network is. My main motive for carting it around, though, was so I could periodically dump the contents of my email inbox. How diligent, you might be thinking. Maybe. The fact was, I was so daunted by the prospect of returning to work to sift through hundreds of accumulated messages that I thought it worth taking the notebook along for the ride at the risk of having it stolen. As it happened, I overestimated my appetite for spam. I managed to fire up the computer in just a handful of locations for extended purge sessions. (I can report there is good CDMA coverage at Glendhu Bay on Lake Wanaka, presumably to cater for skiers on nearby Treble Cone.)

How do we reclaim email as a useful work tool? In the snail mail world we fix a notice to the letterbox saying "No junk mail". Our Wellington reporter, Stephen Bell, established last year that doing the equivalent with email -- requesting that spammers remove you from their database -- merely alerts them that they’ve found an active address, and the flow of electronic junk mail increases.

What about filters? They seem of dubious worth. IDG employs one, yet the stream of mortgage and sex aid offers continues unabated. When it’s as simple as substituting "*" for the "I" in Viagra to get past a filter, it’s clearly no contest. And as the story: Uh-oh: Spam's getting more sophisticated tells, spammers are much more resourceful than that as they go about their business.

Another tack is to legislate them out of business. Australia and the US seem to be ahead of us in this, which only means that at least they’ve been talking about the issue at government level. They’re concerned because of the inhibiting effect it has on electronic commerce, surely a matter close to the heart of our IT and commerce minister, Paul Swain.

In the US, the Can-Spam (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act is working its way through the legislature. As proposed, it requires online marketers to include a working return address and prohibits them from using phony or misleading subject headers. Violators will be fined up to $US10 per infringing email.

States also get the right to sue on behalf of residents, as do ISPs to keep spam off their networks.

In Australia, legislative moves are less advanced. The government response is likely to be a combination of "legislation, industry codes of best practice and raising awareness", a spokesman for the National Office for the Information Economy said last year.

And here? The only occasion in Computerworld’s pages when "spam" and "Swain" are mentioned in the same breath is in a spoof ministerial diary, in which we wrote he was off to see what the Aussies were up to on the issue. If we were to update that entry for today, we would say: "Must seek bureaucrat scalps for complete failure to address spam problem". With the e-commerce-facilitating Electronic Transactions Act finally in place, it’s time to tackle the spam scourge.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Phone him with editorial suggestions on 09 302 8763. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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