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The Mother of All Parliaments

I see that that concerns about growing plague of pornographic spam are finally reaching Westminster. I very much doubt that Parliament will show more than a passing interest in what is very clearly a growing problem, reflected in the many emails from CW360 readers on the subject.

Labour MP, Derek Wyatt MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Internet Committee, believes that very few MPs understand the Internet industry and is seeking an amendment to the Communications Bill making ISPs responsible to OFCOM for content in much the same way as television companies are regulated.

Apparently, Mr Wyatt sent the Speaker of the House: “At least four pages of truly disgusting colour photos that had found their way into my in-box and have asked four times for an adjournment debate in the House of Commons but it still hasn't been discussed”.

Of course, In May the European Parliament voted to ban spam but as the great majority starts life outside the EU, it’s almost impossible to regulate without cooperation from the United States. According to research from Nexor, the really unpleasant stuff, explicit pornographic spam is growing by 20 per cent a year. In addition, messaging company, Brightmail, which took a snapshot of all the spam it intercepted over a 24 hour period from 20-21 August, found that approximately 55 per cent of this related to money, as you might expect, debt reduction, money laundering offers from the alleged relatives of deceased Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and much more.
ISPs, through their association the ISPA, vigorously oppose any such move, arguing they are merely “Providing the infrastructure and not the content” and that "ISPs are mere conduits for information - a point recognised in law”. They have a point and many ISPs are already working hard to control the spam problem, which after all, chews-up their bandwidth.

Historically, there has always been an uncomfortable relationship between the ISPs and pornography. Back in the early days of Internet access in the late nineties, I was a Director of two ISPs and several of us, on the board, had a moral problem with some of the nastier and more offensive alt.binary newsgroups, so we switched of access through our servers. The result was a 40 per cent drop in traffic and the loss of subscribers. For the board it became an economic decision very quickly, restricting access would have put us out of business and the decision was reluctantly reversed.

Spam is different but not so very different, other than its ‘Push’ rather than ‘Pull’ on the part of the subscribers, who have no choice in the matter. Attempting to regulate UK ISPs won’t really achieve the goal that Mr Wyatt has in mind unless every piece of email traffic is filtered, which would give us something akin to the RIP legislation by another means and through the back door.

What did interest me this weekend was an email from MSN encouraging me to upgrade to the paid Hotmail alternative to avoid my mailbox filling-up over the summer weeks and the service being suspended. You may recall that I have asked Microsoft, repeatedly to comment on the spam problem and have received nothing but silence in return. Given that Hotmail is used by millions upon millions of people and that it presents arguably one of the largest spam channels, you might have thought that Microsoft would be playing the good citizen and joining the debate. But consider for a moment. Microsoft wants to encourage users to pay for Hotmail and has restricted the size of the inbox. Given that I receive at least fifteen junk mails each day, even with my filters turned on, my mailbox will fill-up very quickly if I don’t manage it ruthlessly. So one has to ask whether it’s in Microsoft’s interest to take a moral position on spam, if spam, after all, is likely to be the single most likely reason that people would pay to expand the size of their Hotmail inbox?

To be honest, I don’t know what the answer is and I’m not sure whether sending “disgusting photos” to the Speaker of The House of Commons, Michael Martin MP, is the best solution to the problem but it’s an original idea, if only I could find his email address if he has one!

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