War on Spam Reaches Global Proportions

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the sweeping “CAN-SPAM” bill, creating the first federal law regulating spam. Advocates of the bill say it is a major step forward in the fight against the deluge of e-mail ads for pornography, cheap prescription medicine and scads of other something-for-nothing schemes.

On the other hand, critics contend the law will not stem the tide of unwanted e-mail. They emphasize that the law is weaker than proposed state laws that could have granted e-mail recipients greater protection against marketing messages.

Both sides of the debate do agree on one thing: Spam is a scourge of global proportions. The United States is not the first country to enact laws in the battle against spammers, and it probably will not be the last.

How realistic is it to expect that varied laws in several countries will reduce the amount of spam — and will the United States be seen as an ally in this war, or an irritant?

America the Docile?

Whether the United States is helping to combat the global spam problem or actually exacerbating it is a matter of some debate.

John Movina, spokesperson for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), told the E-Commerce Times that the United States’ new spam law is weaker than the laws of every other country that has tackled this issue through legislation.

“It doesn’t tell anyone not to spam,” he said. “It fails the most basic test for legislation that way. It regulates that method through which companies can spam without telling them not to do it.”

He noted that in the European Union, marketers must obtain the permission of e-mail recipients before they can send messages, whereas in the United States, marketers merely have to provide a way for people to opt out of receivingfuture messages.

Also, the U.S. law does not mandate much in the way of enforcement or punishment for those who break the rules. Because of this, Movina said, spammers actually may target the United States more intensely.

“The answer for spammers could be to move here,” he said.

Global Problem

Anti-spam sites, especially watchdog sites run outside the United States, have been slamming the CAN-SPAM act with ferocity. The Spamhaus Project, which tracks the Internet’s worst spammers and provides anti-spam protection for networks, reported on the law’s passage with the headline “United States set to legalize spamming.” It has dubbed the law the “YOU-CAN-SPAM” Act.

According to Spamhaus, 90 percent of Europe’s spam problem originates in the United States, and the U.S. law’s enactment will further anger European citizens who already resent U.S.-based spammers.

The site keeps a database of known spammers, spam gangs, spam operations and spam support services. The top five spam countries, based on Spamhaus’ criteria, are the United States, China, South Korea, Brazil and Argentina. Rounding out the top 10 are Canada, Taiwan, Italy, Russia and India.

Lack of One Voice

One tactic for uniting various countries’ anti-spam efforts would be to establish a single rule-making body for Internet law.

However, considering the squabbles that have taken place over Internet law in the past few years, it seems doubtful that a lone organization could step up to the plate andwin the blessings of every country.

One likely candidate could be ICANN, but that organization is careful to define the limits of its ambition. ICANN’s former communications director, Mary Hewitt, told the E-Commerce Times that the organization exists only to oversee the assignment of the Internet’s unique name and number identifiers.

“It’s a technical coordinating body,” she said. “It’s not in place to run the Internet.”

Worsening Problem?

Because so many spammers who act from within the United States are now somewhat protected by the CAN-SPAM Act, combatting spammers globally will prove to be a tough proposition, according to Movina.

He noted that with limited enforcement in the United States, where spamming reportedly is worst, it is unlikely that other countries could set an example through their own laws. After all, it would be difficult to convince spammers to keep their messages within geographical boundaries.

As Bryson Gordon, chief spam prevention officer at McAfee, told the E-Commerce Times: “Spam is spam, that’s what makes it so difficult to control. Spammers don’t discriminate about who they target. They don’t care who’s getting it. All they want is to make sure it gets seen by anyone and everyone, wherever they are.”

Although many in the U.S. Congress and among the general public are hopeful that the new law will bring the United States more in line with international efforts, critics are adamant that this is an unlikely outcome.

“Congress listened to the marketers and not to the consumers,” Movina of CAUCE said. “It’s too early to tell what kind of effect this will have in the long run, but I don’t think it will be a good one.”

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