Anti-Spam bill at risk after Parliament suspended

Anti-spam legislation that was as close as two weeks away from gaining royal assent has been scrubbed after the government suspended Parliament until March.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament Dec. 30. This rebooted all legislation in progress. Out of 64 bills introduced during the session, 37 of them will now need to be restarted. The anti-spam bill C-27, or the Electronic Commerce Protection Act, was just about to be reviewed by a Senate committee before Parliament was suspended.

The bill aims to cut down on the abuse of e-mail marketing by businesses. It does so by requiring that consumers give consent before they can be contacted via e-mail. It also creates legal procedures for spammers to be brought to justice and sued.

Proponents of the legislation will now have to wait for months before having a chance to pass the bill. That includes Liberal consumer affairs critic Dan McTeague, who has been working for an anti-spam law since introducing a private member’s bill in 2001.

“I was a little annoyed when I heard that Parliament was going to be prorogued,” he says. “It has really called into question their (Conservatives) integrity, since they’re willing to throw everything out.”

There is a chance the bill could be fast-tracked back to its previous stage once Parliament resumes. That will require a unanimous vote in the House of Commons to restore it without starting from scratch.

“There is a mechanism for it to jump right back to where it was at,” explains Michael Geist, an Internet law professor at the University of Ottawa. “It certainly was the closest we’ve been to a spam bill in Canada.”

Other countries have passed legislation targeting spammers with stiff penalties. The U.S. CANSPAM act is one example. Without similar legislation, many fear that Canada risks becoming a spam haven.

With 4.7 per cent of all spam being sent from here, Canada ranks fourth among spam originating countries in Cisco’s 2008 annual security report, .

Bill C-27 could create a “spam reporting centre” to help enforce the new law. It could levy fines against spammers and aid investigations. Those who receive spam could also sue spammers.

“This Bill is designed to protect consumers in Canada,” says Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist with MessageLabs (now part of Symantec Corp.) “This will stop that trickle of spam that does get through to your Inbox.”

E-mail spam filters, anti-virus software and other products protect Canadians from much of the spam e-mail flowing over the Internet. As much as 90 per cent of all e-mail is sent by malicious spammers. The bill won’t be able to stem that, but will stop businesses from abusing e-mail with poor first-contact policies.

Industry Canada has expressed optimism to MessageLabs the anti-spam bill will be able to return to the Senate review committee once Parliament resumes, Sergeant says.

“It sounds kind of scary and frightening, but it’s not 100 per cent bad news,” he says. “We should have something in place mid-2010.”

Harper is also expected to appoint several more Conservative Senators before March. That will give the party more Senate seats than the Liberals, and the ability to chair committees.

A more Conservative Senate could be favourable to grease the wheels on the Anti-Spam bill, Geist says.

But it just takes one vote to disrupt fast-tracking the bill, McTeague points out. The bill might have been passed in about 15 days, but now it will at least take months.

“It does require a certain period of time to restore that work,” he says.

Some business groups had lobbied against the bill, asking for more exemptions to be added before it passed. For example, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses wants referrals to be an acceptable way to collect new e-mails and reach potential customers.

The bill already contains exemptions that allow for non-commercial e-mail to be sent freely. Business-to-business e-mail is also exempt and there’s an implied consent period for up to 18 months for existing customers.

“The bill in its present form is acceptable,” McTeague says.

Parliament will resume with a new Throne Speech March 3.

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