Opting for a Sensible Option.

This month’s ‘Spam Summit’ held by the All Party Internet Group at Westminster, didn’t leave its audience too much in the way of optimism for the future.

We all know spam is a menace but even with better filtering from the Internet Service Providers and stronger legislation from Europe and the United States, it’s unlikely that the efforts at remediation are going to make a great difference before the Internet starts grinding to a halt under the weight of unsolicited email.

As Steve Linford of Spamhaus tells us, 90% of the unsolicited email we receive, Spam, comes from 140 ‘Spammers’ and to qualify as a member of Spamhaus’ hall of fame, its ‘ROXO’ list, then a spammer has to have been thrown off three consecutive ISPs. The Spamhaus Block List (SBL) has 140 million users but although it’s proactive and pre-emptive by blocking known IP addresses, it’s useless against open relays and proxies and the worst offenders on ROXO are sending out as many as 50 million emails a day. It’s a big business and increasingly one which attracts racketeering and the Mafia on its seedier pornographic side and an exploding ‘service’ sector in China, where ISPs are happy to accommodate Spam operations for a few hundred dollars a month.

AOL is apparently the best place to be if you wish to avoid Spam. It blocks 2 billion emails each day to its 26 million customers but the company, like every other ISP and service, such as Microsoft’s Hotmail, is in a technology arms race with the spammers who are constantly searching for new ways to bypass their filtering systems.

Both the United States and the Europe legislating against the concealment of identity or in other words sending ‘spoofed’ headers, as one way of clearly criminalising aspects of the activity. Presently, as much as 66% of all the Spam received is deceptive in its header or subject line and as a consequence violates the laws of twelve US States. The only problem is that enforcement is relatively unheard of and only 2% of unsolicited email has the magic ‘ADV’ label which US laws require.

So what can be done? Clearly, the European Commission is clamping down and new EU rules on unsolicited email, requiring a strict ‘opt-in’ and an existing customer relationship, will become law in October, which at first sight sounds great until of course you realise that most of the unsolicited mail, more than 90% comes from outside the European Union.

The Americans, bless them, have more than thirty state laws and a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and the right to shoot bears. Unlike Europe, America doesn’t view information privacy as a fundamental right and the Direct Marketing Association, rather like the National Rifle Association, believes that the right of free expression should be supported, whatever the consequences.

The Republican administration under George W.B. looks set to pass ‘opt-out’ legislation, rather than ‘opt’-in legislation. This would be a complete disaster for everyone for three reasons. Firstly because you would then have to opt-out of any unsolicited email you may be sent, secondly because 23 million small US businesses would be free to hit anyone with an Internet address and thirdly, because the Chinese government is more likely to follow the Americans than the European in framing its own legislation. Therefore, the spammers will become very rich and the Internet, where already 50% of the traffic is unsolicited email, will slowly grind to a creaking halt under the weight of freedom of expression.

Ultimately and if a solution is not found quickly, I can see the appearance of two Internets. The free one, which resembles the space inside my front door, after I return from holiday, crammed with credit card offers and a private ‘Walled Garden’, where business pays for its email in a relatively spam free environment. Either way, the Internet looks set to become a channel of diminishing returns for the rest of us unless Uncle Sam and the European Commission start singing from the same hymn sheet, which is about as likely as an agreement on the whereabouts of those elusive weapons of mass destruction.


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