China's spam fight takes flight

Anti-spam lobbyist Spamhaus takes its fight to China--the top spamming nation in Asia--but faces some resistance from telecom administrators unwilling to give up lucrative contracts.

Next to offshore outsourcing, spam is the other thing that has become synonymous with China.

Ranked second after the United States as the source from which spam originates, China faces an uphill battle in keeping spammers off its networks.

Danny Levinson, a representative for anti-spam organization The Spamhaus Project in China, said: "It's like influenza--we can build tools to avoid the scourge, but influenza will always remain."

Founded in 1998 in the United Kingdom, Spamhaus maintains a blacklist of junk e-mailers, works with law enforcement agencies to identify and hunt down spammers worldwide, and lobbies governments to establish effective anti-spam legislation. In May 2004, Spamhaus set up operations in China.

But as bleak as the situation may seem in the No.1 spamming nation in Asia, businesses cannot afford not to fight. The rise in other forms of spam beyond the e-mail inbox, such as instant messaging, voice over Internet Protocol, and SMS (short messaging service) spam, has resulted in loss of bandwidth capacity, loss of productivity and, ultimately, loss of money.

According to Levinson, the Chinese government and its affiliated agencies have been proactive and are working with Spamhaus to stem the spam tide, but many of the same problems persist. For example, some telecom administrators are willing to collaborate while others are not giving up lucrative spam contracts.

In a recent e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Levinson offers a progress report on China and questions the efforts taken by some marketing organizations.

Q. Is there a particular type of spam that's more worrying or damaging to businesses, for example, voice over IP (VoIP) compared with traditional e-mail spam?
Levinson: Any type of unsolicited bulk messaging arriving at a business is troublesome both as a loss of bandwidth capacity and a loss of time. This all equals loss of money. VoIP spam is relatively new and has not seemed to provoke as much anger from companies as traditional e-mail spam has.

Text message spam is growing but it's still a drop in the bucket compared with traditional e-mail spam. Do we necessarily need to successfully tackle e-mail first, then the other spam methods?
Unfortunately, e-mail spam will never go away. However, the tools used in helping us avoid it will always get better. It's like influenza--we can build tools to avoid the scourge, but influenza will always remain. That being said, we will never start fighting SMS spam if we only concentrate on e-mail spam, so we need to deal with them both, at the same time.

What is the state of the fight against spam in China?
Three weeks ago, Spamhaus lifted a worldwide IP block on China's because the company was somehow wrapped up with a Chinese spammer. We are still focused on many other hotspots in China where systems administrators refuse to remove criminals from their systems. The good news is that I'm in direct contact with the Internet Society of China and China's major telecom operators, and they are very receptive to change.

On Dec. 1, 2006, China's Green Email Box initiative began with many of China's top e-mail providers like Sohu, Sina, and Netease joining to help fight spam. According to Spamhaus statistics, China ranks second behind the United States as the source of most spam.

It's been three months since China's 2006 Anti-Spam Annual Meeting and International Anti-Spam Summit in December. To what extent has there been a noticeable improvement or success in combating spam?
Yes, I have received feedback from a number of international companies--many of them in the e-mail business--that say they are being blocked from their servers in Europe or America. To some extent, for these companies, the blocks have hurt their legitimate business and they are finding it difficult to communicate with Chinese systems administrators. But for Chinese companies, especially e-mail service providers, I know many of them are relieved and have seen better feedback from their users because of less spam entering their inboxes.

To what extent are Chinese ISPs (Internet service providers) less spam-friendly now?
The same problems persist. Many Chinese ISPs, including some Chinese Web portals which stocks are bought and sold on Nasdaq, have really bad internal management and controls. This leads to poor communication internally and loss of reputation for the businesses as groups like Spamhaus have no other recourse but to block them internationally.

How willing are Chinese ISPs to work with Spamhaus to root out illegal spam gangs? Can you share the progress so far?
There are some great telecom administrators that quickly delete accounts or cancel client contracts if Spamhaus tells them that problems are developing. But there are still many administrators which hands are tied because the sales managers in their companies don't want to lose these lucrative spam contracts. With regards to the Chinese government and its affiliated agencies, we have continued to receive fantastic support and we are happy to work with them. They are proactive and they work quickly.

In your view, what's the best way to combat spam?
The best way to combat spam is through education and better legal oversights. I really wish it could be 100 percent industry-driven, but I see some of the drivel coming out of groups like the Asia Digital Marketing Association (ADMA), and I see that sometimes groups like the ADMA are co-dependents in fighting spam, and not really looking at ways to improve the situation. The ADMA issued a statement a couple months ago on China's Green Inbox reforms, but most of what they said made me question if they truly understood what they were talking about. In my experience, many marketers--and digital marketers at that--enjoy talking more than actually understanding the technology on which they earn their livelihoods.

How effective are anti-spam laws?
Laws of any sort anywhere in the world are deterrents, but they will never eliminate all criminal behavior. There are good laws and bad laws. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 in the United States is an example of a relatively useless, toothless law.

Singapore is expected to pass the Spam Control Bill this year. Do you have any advice or word of caution?
Be careful what you wish for. Good laws must be coupled with good policemen and judges. This means that the law should not be used to stop legitimate Internet e-mail traffic, and those that are implementing the law must be able to fully understand how the tubes on the Internet work and how e-mail is sent and received.

Unfortunately, I think jurists around the world still lack solid technological foundations to deal with many of the Internet's problems. But I wish them luck.