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This page was published on 09/03/2004
Published: 09/03/2004

   Science & business

Published: 9 March 2004  
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Science & business  |  Information society  |  International cooperation


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Spam, spam and more spam

The European Union has renewed its vow to knock spam – unsolicited e-mail – on the head once and for all. Legislation and action at the EU-level only partly addresses the problem, argues the European Commissioner for Information Society, greater international co-operation and technical solutions are essential.

Getting some spam no longer requires a tin-opener, unfortunately © Source: PhotoDisc
Getting some spam no longer requires a tin-opener, unfortunately

© Source: PhotoDisc

Experts reckon up to 50% of global e-mail traffic today is unsolicited e-mail, popularly known as ‘spam' – a word said to originate from a famous Monty Python comedy skit. Accurate or not, there is no doubt that governments, businesses and individuals are spending vast amounts of time and money keeping their networks clear of memory hungry spam-mail.

Last year alone, spam cost EU businesses an estimated €2.5 billion, and it threatens to undermine development of e-commerce and confidence in the information society as a whole, according to the Union's executive body, the Commission.

The key to winning the spam battle is to bring the international community to the table, something the Commission has called for in a recent statement to delegates attending an OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) workshop in Brussels (BE).

“Spam is a global problem that requires global action,” Erkki Liikanen, European Commissioner for the Information Society, said at the February meeting. “If we want to combat [it] effectively, efforts made in the European Union and other regions of the world must be echoed by similar efforts at the international level, not only by governments but also businesses and consumers.”

This is more fuel to add to the EU's campaign against the spread of unwanted e-mail messages, and reinforces its efforts to implement the directive on ‘Privacy and Electronic Communications'. Member States are being encouraged to translate the Union's so-called “ban on spam” initiative into national legislation.

Technology bringeth but can technology taketh away?
The Commission called on OECD members to approve a five-point strategy to promote effective legislation against spam, which would involve co-operation between enforcement agencies, self-regulation by industry, technical solutions, and greater consumer awareness.

The world may not be listening to every word uttered by the EU, but it is certainly not deaf to the sentiment behind this call for shared action. Recent moves by the US software giant, Microsoft, show big business has had enough, too. Its plan is to develop new technology making it more expensive for spammers to send their unwanted messages. Right now, it costs the same to send one mail as it does to send a million containing promises of endless virility, fast-track graduate degrees and random filth.

IT research in Europe – including projects funded by the EU's research programme for information society technologies (IST) – and elsewhere are developing solutions which focus on spam-recognition technology, filters which pick up on common spam jargon. These have had varying success, with some regular e-mail users complaining that their legitimate mails are failing to be delivered due to ‘suspect' words in the title or even address.

Australian newspaper The Age reports on the woes of a Scottish IT programmer whose mails are routinely rejected by net-based e-mail providers. The problem is, part of his name contains a rude version of male genitals.

Australian regulators unveiled a new law, entering into force in April this year, which combats spam by combining domestic legislation with international negotiation, public education and the development of industry codes of practice and of technical countermeasures. Strict opt-in requirements – where consent has been given to send someone commercial e-mails – and a heavy punishment regime underpin the Australian law, which is being watched by legislators around the world.

Net pollution caused by unsolicited e-mail appears to have beaten the technologists and politicians, according to a recent article in The Economist (12 February). It said now is the time for the economists to take a stab at stopping the spammers, making commercial enterprises pay to send their messages. Legitimate businesses like Amazon back this idea, saying they would be prepared to pay, for example, a nominal fee to receive a good practice “stamp” for the e-mails they send to buyers. This could avoid automatic deletion by increasingly vigilant anti-spam weaponry.

EU sources and news sources

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See also

The Economist  (‘Make ‘em pay’, 12 Feb. 2004, user subscribe)
Microsoft aims to make spammers pay for spam (Reuters 5 Feb. 2004)
Australia set to enact anti-spam laws (ZDNet 19 Dec. 2003)
Time to wake up to the threat of infection (Headlines 16 Feb. 2004)
EU wants to can the spam once and for all (Headlines 20 Oct. 2003)
International co-operation to combat spam (Commission press release)
IST website

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