Canadian business groups calling for exemptions to an anti-spam bill are risking a continued deluge of spam and loss of productivity, says a Conservative MP.
Bill C-27 or the Electronic Commerce Protection Act is currently before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. Politicians are debating whether to include more exceptions in the bill. But the Conservatives are opposed to such a move.
Many spammers operate out of Canada and a strict law is needed to deal with them, says committee chair Michael Chong.
“We will drive these spammers and their illegal activities from Canada,” he says. “I don’t want to water down the bill. We don’t want to be a haven for this type of activity.”
The crux of the anti-spam legislation is that businesses must get consent before e-mailing a person. The aim is to cut down on the deluge of spam clogging e-mail servers – sometimes as much as 90 per cent of all e-mail received.
Some business groups are concerned the new law would prevent them from reaching new customers. The Entertainment Software Association and the Canadian Intellectual Property Council are claiming the bill creates a competitive disadvantage, according to the blog of Michael Geist, an Internet law expert at the University of Ottawa.
Last week, Liberal and Bloc Quebecois members of the committee put forward 40 proposed changes to the bill. Most are new exemptions, including product updates, market research, when a person has published his e-mail address, and if a person is referred by someone else.
“The sum total of these changes would be pretty significant,” Geist writes. “It is clear that the lobby groups would like more, particularly a shift from opt-in to opt-out consent.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) would like to see an exception added to allow referrals, says Corrine Pohlmann, the vice-president of national affairs. Small companies could suffer if not able to make new contacts through e-mail.
“Their market is local and they depend on referrals,” she says. “Allowing them to send that initial e-mail out to that client is important.”
That’s not a good idea, says Chong. The bill already contains exemptions that allow for non-commercial e-mail to be sent freely. It also allows an implied consent period of up to 18 months so existing customers can be e-mailed by a company – though some would rather that period be extended to seven years.
There’s also an exception for business-to-business e-mail.
Canadian firms won’t be put at a disadvantage by the bill, Chong says. The opposite is true.
“If you think about the gigabytes that Canadians need to purchase every year on servers and back office systems to handle the volume of spam coming through, and the IT expense,” he says, “I think reducing the amount of spam on Canadian business networks will result in productivity gains.”
Chong has an IT background and is a former CIO for the National Hockey League Player’s Association.
Not much spam originates from Canadian servers. A January spam report from security vendor Symantec Corp. doesn’t even bother to quantify the percentage of global spam coming from Canada, because it is one per cent or less.
But those figures may be misleading. Teams of spammers operate from Canada and route their traffic through overseas servers, according to Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist at MessageLabs (now a part of Symantec).
“There are a number of spammers who are resident in Canada and operating out of here,” he says. “They may send their e-mail from servers located somewhere else, but they are doing business within Canada.”
Canada is ranked as the fourth top country for originating spam in Cisco’s 2008 annual security report. It contributes 4.7 per cent of global spam, after the U.S., Turkey, and Russia.
The exemptions currently included the bill should be enough, Sergeant adds. Businesses in Australia and other G8 countries that have passed similar legislation have been able to adapt.
“We saw how the do-not-call list got very watered down by the requirements to do ad-hoc surveys,” he says. “Watering down this bill at this stage when so much effort and thought has gone into it is not such a great idea.”
A “spam reporting centre” non-governmental agency could be created to enforce the new law, Chong says. The centre could co-ordinate investigations and prosecutions and levy fines against individuals or businesses. It would also be tasked with tracking down spammers.
Those receiving spam could also opt to sue spammers targeting them, he adds.
Businesses shouldn’t be fined right away if a law does come into effect, Pohlmann says. A simple approach should be taken so smaller businesses are able to comply easily.
“Don’t impose heavy fines right away,” she says. “Use the opportunity in the first year or two to educate.”
The committee will do a clause-by-clause review of the bill Oct. 19.
So this law will result in less spam received by my business?
That depends who you ask. Conservative MP Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills) says the bill will mean less spam clogging up inboxes across the country.
“It will reduce the amount of spam,” he says. “But it will not eliminate it altogether.”
The thinking is that Canada is a “spammer haven” if it doesn’t have anti-spam legislation similar to other G8 countries. By passing it, we will motivate spammers here to pick up shop and move elsewhere, with less threat of punishment.
But MessageLabs doesn’t seem to think the legislation could have an impact on the huge amount of spam hitting servers on a daily basis.
“That’s not the focus of this law. It’s not actually reducing the amount of spam that Canadians get,” says Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist. “It’s really about ensuring businesses are following best practices by giving them the legal framework to do so.”