S'pore antispam bill gets the nod

Country's Spam Control Bill is finally passed in parliament, effecting changes that include requiring marketers to label unsolicited e-mail and SMS messages.

SINGAPORE--The country's Spam Control Bill was formally approved during a parliament sitting Thursday, nearly three years since it was mooted in May 2004.

The antispam law made its first appearance in parliament on Feb. 12 this year, and was heard again for the final round this week in a speech by Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Dr Lee Boon Yang.

Citing a study conducted by Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), Lee said e-mail spam resulted in productivity loss of S$23 million (US$15.1 million) in 2003, where each of the country's three major ISPs received 5,000 spam-related complaints each month.

"For an increasing number of Singaporeans, e-mail and SMS (short messaging service) are default modes of communications," he said. "They are personal, convenient, fast and offer global reach. These advantages also bring along a problem in the form of unsolicited e-mail and SMS [messages]."

"However, in this digital age, e-mail and mobile messages are also important means of business communication for reaching external stakeholders such as customers and suppliers.

"In particular, electronic messages offer direct marketers an important and cost-effective means of reaching out to potential customers on a large scale. It is an important avenue for companies wanting to market their products or service directly and cheaply to potential consumers," Lee explained.

The Singapore government believes its Spam Control Bill 2007 straddles a good balance between consumer interest and legitimate business needs.

For instance, the bill supports an opt-out approach because it "balances the need of companies and marketers to send unsolicited messages for business reasons", Lee said. The minister noted that the opt-in model was considered but eventually rejected because it would "impose an additional burden on legitimate businesses, especially SMEs (small and midsize enterprises)".

In an opt-out approach, businesses can send unsolicited messages but must provide a way for consumers to unsubscribe and opt out of receiving marketing messages from the organization. In an opt-in model, businesses can only send marketing messages to consumers who have indicated an interest to receiving such messages.

"Total prohibition of unsolicited messages disadvantages our local direct marketers and businesses without eradicating the spam problem or effectively stopping foreign spammers," Lee said. According to the IDA study, he noted, four out of five e-mail spam received by users in Singapore, originate overseas.

"Our laws would thus only have a limited effect in addressing this problem," the minister said. "However, this does not mean that we should do nothing."

Under the new bill, marketers must tag unsolicited e-mail and SMS message "<ADV>" and those that fail to comply can be taken to court by consumers. If found guilty, recalcitrant spammers can be fined up to S$25 (US$16.4) per message though the total penalty cannot exceed S$1 million (US$657,800).

The bill defines spam as an unsolicited commercial electronic message sent, under the same or similar subject header:

•  more than 100 times during a 24-hour period;
•  more than 1,000 times during a 30-day period; and
•  more than 10,000 times during a one-year period.

Nominated Member of Parliament and lawyer Siew Kum Hong called the antispam bill "a positive step", but noted during the parliament sitting that it is still "not perfect". In his speech, Siew outlined several key areas in which the new legislation lacks clarity.

For example, he explained, the bill relies exclusively on consumers to bring civil actions against errant spammers. He noted that the legislation would have "a lot more teeth" if it had included criminal sanctions for more serious offenses, such as where dictionary attacks or address harvesting software are used.

He added that the relevant government authorities could be empowered to commence enforcement actions against offenders or impose civil penalties.

"This would lighten the burden on private industry...[and] ensure that in cases where the ISPs are unable or unwilling to take action for any reason, there remain other entities able to commence proceedings," Siew said.

"Spam is also a problem that affects everyone. Its effects are diffuse, but it affects many. When added up, the negative effects become substantial," he added. "That is why the resources of private enterprise alone will not be sufficient to combat spam effectively."

According to Lee, the Singapore government chose not to make spamming a criminal offense because no other jurisdictions worldwide have done so.

"While some overseas spam legislation may contain criminal provisions, these are primarily linked to criminal offences committed online," he said. "For instance, the United States treats spam with fraudulent intent as criminal acts. In Singapore, spam sent with a fraudulent or malicious component that results in a denial of service is also criminalized under the Computer Misuse Act."

Lee stressed that the bill should not be regarded as "a magic bullet to eradicate all spamming activities overnight".

With the antispam legislation now officially passed, Singapore joins the same league as countries that includes the United States, China, Australia and the United Kingdom, which have also introduced antispam laws.