UN calls for ISPs to police spammers

Legislation should be put in place to force Internet service providers to combat spam, according to the United Nation's telecommunications body.

The United Nations on Thursday recommended enforceable codes of conduct for Internet service providers as a way to cut down on spam.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN organization responsible for global telecoms standards, recommended that ISPs be required to enforce codes of conduct regarding their customers, and block spammers' e-mail access.

"Some ISPs are very proactive, and are spending huge amounts of money combating spam. The problem is not all ISPs are doing this. A smaller group of ISPs profit from carrying spam or take no action, and those bad apples touch the rest of the ISP community," said Susan Schorr, regulatory officer with the ITU's telecommunications development bureau.

Currently most antispam laws are targeted at hunting down and prosecuting spammers, according to ITU. "This is an expensive and difficult task, and a model that is not realistic in developing countries," said Schorr.

The UN said it is seeking "a level playing field" so all ISPs take action against spam, especially those who are currently "bad apples". Legislation would be an effective way of forcing those ISPs to comply, according to the ITU.

"We're proposing regulators could pass legislation to require ISPs to enter into enforceable codes of conduct for their customers," Schorr told ZDNet UK.

Initially, the ITU would like to see ISPs drafting their own codes of conduct which would then be approved by telecommunications regulators.

"ISPs themselves will be given the first opportunity to draft a code of conduct. The code of conduct would then be submitted to regulators for approval, who would modify it to meet standards of best practice," said Schorr.

As to what would happen to ISPs who broke this code, "it would be up to the regulators to take some kind of action...sanctions based on legislation to require enforceable codes of conduct," said Schorr.

AOL cautiously welcomed moves to implement agreements between ISPs.

"What would help in the fight against spam are widespread agreements to the type and level of actions ISPs should take, with the qualification that we are not there to police the Internet. We are there to protect our members from unofficial marketing," said Phil Hale, senior communications manager with AOL UK. "The difficulty is in ISPs policing their own customers--we aren't Internet policemen."

Hale claimed that AOL does a lot to combat spam already, blocking between 1.5 billion and 2 billion e-mail a day. "Spam is 75 percent of all e-mail that's directed towards our e-mail members--this is the scope of what we're faced with," he said.

Some ISPs had been proactive in reducing spam but their reluctance to "police" customers leaves holes for spammers to exploit according to the ITU.

"We wouldn't be surprised that some ISPs would be reluctant to accept this--part of the reason many have been proactive in blocking spam has been to avoid legislation, and they have made heroic efforts," said Schorr. "The problem is, as long as there's not a level playing field, we will have ISPs that court spammers, and we all suffer."

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