Spam task force calls for legislative weapons

The federal government’s Task Force on Spam is recommending legislation aimed at spammers, a government “focal point” to address the problem, improved business practices, public education and international co-operation to fight what it called a threat to the integrity of the Internet

as a platform for communications and commerce.

Task force members say their recommendations can significantly reduce the amount of junk e-mail generated in Canada, and are optimistic the government will act on their advice. However, they say spam is a global problem and one country can have only a limited effect alone.

Task force member Neil Schwartzman, chair of the Montreal-based Canadian Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE), said Canadians can do “a whole lot” to stop spammers here, but very little about spam around the world.

The report urges the government to draft legislation allowing individuals and businesses to sue spammers, and holding businesses accountable for promotion of their products through spam, and to give appropriate agencies more resources to enforce the new laws.

Bernard Courtois, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and a member of the task force, said some members were leery of new anti-spam legislation initially, fearing it would be ineffective. But he said it became clear that while existing laws address some issues, gaps must be filled so law enforcement agencies can act effectively against spam.

Existing laws are “all designed for general purposes and therefore give avenues of escape to the most serious spammers,” said Courtois.

“While we would have preferred at the outset not to fiddle too much with Canadian law,” said Tom Copeland, president of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) in Toronto and a member of the task force. It became apparent, however, that law enforcement agenices’ anti-spam efforts were hampered by the lack of specific laws, he said.

The task force developed best practices for Internet service providers (ISPs), network operators and e-mail marketers, which it wants these groups to adopt voluntarily and review and update regularly.

The implementation of the network best practices would do a tremendous amount toward limiting the problem, Schwartzman said.

Courtois said better practices already seem to be having an effect. Spam was steadily increasing a year ago, he said, but now “something has happened to blunt the growth of spam.”

Canada is already moving down the list of top spamming countries as the amount of outgoing spam from zombie computers infected with hidden spamming software decreases, said task force member Lori Assheton-Smith, senior vice-president and general counsel of the Canadian Cable Telecommunications Association (CCTA) in Ottawa.

She said large cable operators belonging to CCTA have worked to combat spam for several years and have been sharing ideas with other large ISPs.

Copeland said ISPs are “filtering almost to the point of making it difficult to get legitimate mail through.” They are also working to stop their networks being used to send spam, he added – though he noted that “this is not a problem for just ISPs.” The private networks and Internet connections of large businesses can also be used for spamming, Copeland pointed out.

Profit before principle

Schwartzman said, however, that not all Canadian ISPs have moved as fast as they could have to drive spammers off their networks. Hosting spammers is “very lucrative,” he said, and some ISPs turn a blind eye to obvious spamming by customers. The fear of public exposure has induced some offenders to take action, he added.

Copeland admitted some ISPs have tolerated spam in the past, but any who continue doing so “will find themselves very quickly being shut out by the rest of the industry, and we’re starting to see that already.”

Schwartzman added that consumer education could also have a tremendous impact. “If consumers everywhere in the world were to take care of their computers at least as well as they take care of their cars … we would put a blank wall in the way of spammers,” he said. Such care would involve proper use of firewalls, anti-virus software and so forth.

He referred to a recent experiment by the British Broadcasting Corp., which connected an unprotected computer to the Internet. The computer was infected by the Sasser worm within eight seconds.

The task force has set up a public education Web site called Stop Spam Here. Assheton-Smith said the site had 500,000 visitors in the six months to April, and more than 200 organizations have linked to the site and placed its logo on their own sites. The task force has no statistics on how much the campaign has affected consumer behaviour, she said. Its recommendations include continued enhancements to the site.

The report also calls for a focal point in government to coordinate policy and education campaigns, support law enforcement, receive complaints and compile spam statistics. Courtois said the logical home for this would be Industry Canada, the department that initiated the task force. It would also give other countries a single point of contact for discussions with Canada on spam.

Global impact

While action in Canada can reduce the amount of spam produced domestically, international co-operation will be crucial to reducing the problem worldwide. As countries like Canada make life more difficult for spammers, Courtois said, they will simply move to more hospitable locations. The task force recommended Ottawa continue efforts to harmonize anti-spam policies and improve co-operation with other countries.

“In order to fight spam internationally,” Courtois said, “every single country that’s a source of it has got to clean up their act.” 

Schwartzman agreed, saying implementation of the task force’s recommendations could produce a measurable reduction in spam in Canada, but “you can’t hope to have an impact unless you do things internationally, because spam knows no borders.” 

When enough countries have cracked down on spammers, Courtois suggested, a few “rogue countries” will remain, and the rest of the world may threaten to shut down all Internet traffic coming out of those nations unless they take action against spammers.

Task force members interviewed by said they are optimistic Ottawa will act promptly on many or most of their recommendations.

“Certainly the minister was very responsive,” said Assheton-Smith. “I think this is a priority for the minister of industry and the government.”

“We sat with the minister on Tuesday (May 17) and he looked us in the eye and said that he will undertake to do a six-month implementation phase,” said Schwartzman, although he added that he does not expect all the recommendations will be implemented. “Lobbyists will push to shove some of it under the rug,” he predicted. Schwartzman said some business people and even some members of the task force are against certain recommendations such as proposed legislation. 

“There are a lot of individual jobs that need to be done,” Courtois said. “As you would appreciate, the fight against spam is not going to stop at any point.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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