Australia considers sending spammers to jail

Australia's new anti-spam legislation may in the future be tweaked to include criminal penalties, according to a member of its advisory group
Written by James Pearce, Contributor

A member of the advisory group charged with helping develop the new anti-spam legislation does not feel the final document goes far enough in punishing people found guilty of spamming.

John Donovan, managing director of Australia and New Zealand for computer security company Symantec, was one of about 20 delegates to the advisory group on spam that included members from the Internet Industry Association, major ISPs, security companies, filtering technologies, as well as the respective ministers for IT: Richard Alston (Liberal), Kate Lundy (Labor) and Brian Greig (Democrats).

"I think the legislation is probably best described as a step in the right direction," said Donovan. "It doesn't really change the work practices. It's a nominal fine, but it doesn't change the work practices." He said that in the United States, companies that were fined for spamming regarded it as part of their operating expenses.

"It's the best they could have hoped for at this stage; if they'd gone for criminal damages it would have been a much tougher scenario to push through," said Donovan, adding that the government had regarded the speedy introduction of legislation as essential, and would now likely look to adding criminal penalties to the legislation.

Donovan acknowledged that the vast majority of spam originated outside Australia, and the legislation would not be enough to stop the deluge by itself.

"We're doing a good job of protecting what goes on within Australia's physical boundaries but not outside those boundaries," he said. "My concern is that people will think this will solve the problem; it won't."

"I would certainly hope [the legislation will be picked up by other countries], it's being worked on by some pretty good people," said Donovan. "If they could make it usable and transportable that would be highly desirable... a lot of government organisations in other countries are looking at the Australian model to see how it turns out."

As the legislation stands, companies who send an individual email to someone without having prior contact with them will be liable for the penalties, an area Donovan described as "difficult".

"What [the legislation is] really aiming at is list-harvesting," he said. "The concept of one to one sales techniques is something that will probably be captured by this legislation and will need to be analysed...if you try to capture everything then you're generally stifling one of the uses of emails."

"That will probably need to be tested, to be honest," said Donovan. "It's kind of like the privacy laws; everyone was a little unsure as to what it actually meant, but as we used it over two years, we [became] a little more sure of what it covers and what is appropriate behaviour. The same process will apply to anti-spam laws."

"I think the government is doing what they should be doing -- responding to a very high profile plea from people of Australia," said Donovan. He added that the government needed to combine practical concerns from the operational and infrastructure perspective with listening to "what the people who voted them in are asking them to do".

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