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Junk e-mail scourge of cyberspace

February 23, 2002

Every time Canada's electronic-commerce watchdog signs on to his Ottawa-office e-mail, he faces a number of pressing public-policy issues, such as: "Would you like to jumpstart your desire and enhance your experience?" and "Register to win your Dream Vacation."

There is no way of knowing the volume of unsolicited e-mails being transmitted because no one keeps a scientifically valid scorecard.

But anecdotal information strongly suggests that Internet users are being deluged.

Whether the messages are benign or offensive and illegal, most people consider them annoying.

"It's on my screen every morning, sitting behind a fairly robust firewall," said Peter Ferguson, a senior official at Industry Canada who leads a federal task force developing a national policy on electronic commerce and the control of spam. "Offers for this, offers for that."

And more may be on the way. New York research firm Jupiter Media Matrix said Americans can expect 1,500 spam messages a year within the next few years.

As well, there is evidence that spammers are propagating "wireless spam" that is transmitted to cell phones and other handheld devices. This is a problem in Europe where text-messaging is hugely popular and free.

Mr. Ferguson has just returned from an Internet conference in Australia where the government launched an investigation this week into ways to counter spam. Australians have experienced a surge of unsolicited e-mail in the past year, particularly pornography.

Australia's Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Email estimated that Internet users in that country received six times more unsolicited mail in 2001 than in 2000.

"The government is concerned about e-mail messages that are clearly inappropriate or unwanted, in particular those containing illegal, offensive of deceptive content," Australian Information Technology Minister Richard Alston said. "This material is often of a pornographic nature."

Mr. Ferguson is watching closely.

"The issue has become alive again, and Australia certainly wants to take action, although nobody wants, particularly, to put the annoyance-related activity at the front burner," he said.

"It's the illegal stuff they want to get at."

Ottawa's policy paper, which Mr. Ferguson drafted with a Justice Department lawyer and published 2½ years ago, provides the tools to foster Internet growth and safeguards against certain types of electronic junk mail.

Remedies against spam include using Internet service providers that oppose and curtail the junk mail, use of filters, pressuring marketing groups to adopt rules on spam and launching civil suits against spammers. The paper says that criminal prosecutions may be launched for "computer mischief" and for illegal activities such as transmitting pornography and hate messages.

Nineteen U.S. states have various forms of antispam legislation, but none bans unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail outright. Most of the laws prohibit practices such as false return addresses, misleading subject lines and fake opt-out options.

Canadian privacy legislation imposes restrictions on how e-mail addresses and personal information are collected, used and disclosed for commercial purposes.

Canadians may consider those controls adequate for the time being. Despite the annoying nature of spam, Mr. Ferguson said his department is not swamped with complaints.

"We're hearing it's a persistent but minor irritant that comes to the attention of the department.

"I think that since our policy statement came out, I might have had a dozen people phone me.

"It's not a huge political issue. . . . The irritation factor is there and it really seems to get people excited [and] if it comes up in discussion people would like it to all go away."

But pressure will grow on the federal government to ban spam when consumers directly bear its costs, said a professor specializing in cyberlaw. Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa said that may occur when spammers more aggressively penetrate wireless devices.

"I think there may be more of an incentive for the government to act over the next year or so because, increasingly, the spam is moving toward devices -- particularly overseas but I think we'll see it over here, as well -- like Blackberries and cell phones.

David Neale, vice-president of new-product development for Rogers AT&T Wireless, said that preventive measures have been developed to block spam intended for e-mail-equipped cellphones and other wireless text-messaging devices.

Moreover, in Canada, a message sent from a handset is billed to the subscriber, but a messages received is not.

"If we plan at the network level and the customer plans just on their own day-to-day basis and doesn't do something daft [such as publicizing one's e-mail address], we can collectively ensure that this becomes no big deal at all," Mr. Neale said.

Prof. Geist said there is no great pressure on the government to rigorously control spam because most consumers using the Internet do so under a plan where they get unlimited access for monthly fees.

While spam is annoying and takes time to delete, in most cases Internet users are not paying for the time to download the messages.

But ad hoc antispam groups argue that Internet users pay for spam through increased Internet fees and slower service.

The U.S.-based Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, a volunteer group, said that spam is the leading complaint among Internet users and is more than simply annoying.

"Junk e-mail is 'postage-due' marketing; it's like a telemarketer calling you collect," the coalition says on its Web site.

Prof. Geist said the federal government trys to distinguish between spam that is merely annoying and spam that is illegal.

"The government believes the latter can be addressed by the Criminal Code, and I think they're right," he said.

"At the same time, there clearly is a lot of spam that is taking place that pushes the envelope, not so far that it is fraudulent but certainly raises privacy concerns."

Spam Spam Spam Spam!

The first can of SPAM luncheon meat rolled off the production line in 1937, originally labelled Hormal Spiced Ham. The company held a contest and awarded $100 to the entrant who joined the "sp" from spiced and the "am" from ham to invent a more memorable name.

The spam in your e-mail in-box got its name from a raucous group of Vikings in a Monty Python comedy sketch. In the 1970s-vintage skit, Norsemen scream "Spam! Spam! Spam!" as a waitress reads out the menu, drowning all other conversation in the restaurant and annoying their fellow diners.

The Internet community latched on to the nickname "spam" as the perfect term of derision for unsolicited e-mails that are annoying as they are useless. As for Hormel, the company last year dropped its objections to the term spam to describe unwanted e-mail -- as long as the word isn't capitalized.

By ESTANISLAO OZIEWICZ. Source: Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.


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