UP FRONT

IT’S TIME TO DAM THE SPAM

Canada is too far behind other nations in the battle to curtail unwanted email

Mary Janigan January 31 2005
UP FRONT

IT’S TIME TO DAM THE SPAM

Canada is too far behind other nations in the battle to curtail unwanted email

Mary Janigan January 31 2005

IT’S TIME TO DAM THE SPAM

UP FRONT

ON THE ISSUES

Canada is too far behind other nations in the battle to curtail unwanted email

Mary Janigan

THEY ALMOST got to me last fall with a missive, purportedly from Rogers Communications techies, tucked amid my ever-multiplying queue of emails. Email access, it announced, would soon be interrupted. But I could go to an Internet site, sign in with my password and have access anyway. In retrospect, I was foolish to even read it. The missive was fraudulent. Welcome to the world of really bad spam.

Can it be only 11 years ago that two Arizona immigration lawyers brashly advertised their services on online message boards, provoking the use of the derisory word spam? Today, service providers estimate the volume of spam at anywhere from two-thirds to 80 per cent of all email traffic. And Canada, which is only belatedly coming to grips with the enormity of the problem, is the fourth largest source of those junk emails. The Information Technology Association of Canada says Nortel Networks is deluged with 5,000 to 15,000 spam messages each day, despite spam filters; experts say each message costs $1 in lost productivity. The spammers have little incentive to stop: volumes are so huge that even one response to every 500,000 emails can mean thousands of dollars of profit.

Litde wonder the problem is getting worse. “An increasing proportion of spam is linked with viruses and trojans [which hijack computers, emitting spam without the hapless owner’s consent] and identity theft,” says Dimitri Ypsilanti, telecom policy expert at the OECD, which is chronicling the best anti-spam practices among its 30 industrialized members— and sharing them with

Nortel is deluged with 5,000 to 15,000 spam messages daily, despite filters; experts say each message costs $1 in lost productivity

less-developed nations. “Spam is becoming more dangerous and more costly.”

In this world of zombie machines and email-address-harvesting spiders, the solutions are as diverse as the deliciously dubbed problems. Tory Senator Donald Oliver will reintroduce his private member’s bill to deter spam early next month. (That diverse bill, which would establish a no-spam list for consumers, may actually pass.) And, after a year-long study, a high-profile expert task force will present its own action plan to the federal Industry Department this May.

Meanwhile, Ottawa has tabled glitzy antispam advice kits for individuals. The Internet community is grappling, still unsuccessfully, with the need to find a common standard to authenticate email: that is, to ensure the sender and the return address are legitimate. Last October, our law enforcement agencies and private sector groups were part of a 27-nation London Action Plan establishing informal links to combat spam fraud.

Most importantly, well after the United States, EU and Australia, we are finally tackling our legal loopholes. The University of Ottawa’s e-commerce law professor Michael Geist notes that existing laws such as privacy legislation could handle many spam complaints—if they are enforced. But we still need tougher penal provisions for offenders. Internet service providers should be able to sue spammers—and secure statutory damages. And laws that could deter misleading email headers should be toughened. “If the private sector cannot do it alone, then government has to get involved,” says Geist, a member of Ottawa’s task force. “And we are now moving there quickly.” Spam will never be totally eradicated. But, speaking as a near-victim, Ottawa cannot move fast enough to strengthen our legal armoury. fil

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com