The Spam Act -- a good start

Legislation may be leading the way in the war against spam, but proper education is still crucial.People who like guns insist that it's the people who use them that cause death and injury, not the firearms themselves.



Legislation may be leading the way in the war against spam, but proper education is still crucial.

People who like guns insist that it's the people who use them that cause death and injury, not the firearms themselves. It can be argued that the same applies to electronic messaging.

E-mails, SMS text messaging, and Multimedia Message Services (MMS) have evolved into society's core communicators, but they threaten to self-destruct under the pressure exerted on users by the shysters and hucksters strangling the system with malicious, unwanted junk.

Australian legislators have done a good job in framing the Spam Act that came into force last Easter to try to control the rapidly rising tide of garbage, which left unchecked, will clog society's communication arteries to the point where users will turn away in frustration.

It's a good start, but beyond legislation it will also take education and technology to make a measurable difference.

Essentially, the Act broadly says it is illegal for any Australian entity to send a single e-mail, SMS or MMS message to anyone trying to sell them something -- let alone bulk messaging -- without their previously agreeing to accept it. Or for any foreign outfit to send stuff to Australian addresses without recipient consent. Charities and government are exempt. This may lead to interesting commercial joint ventures with charity organisations.

This is called "opting in", and the Australian legislation follows that enacted by the EU and Canada and in this regard is to be applauded for it.

Those without significant legal resources in-house will need to move quickly to ensure that electronic marketing activities comply.
The question of "consent" can be vexing. Consent can be inferred from previous relationships or conduct (online customers who already get retail newsletters for example -- or just having a business card with a personal e-mail address on it) and companies need to clarify these permissions. Certainly, it would be unwise to put your business card into a barrel at a trade show as you are giving consent.

The ACS recommends five basic steps:

  1. If you are not sure about consent, get it via phone, mail, or even e-mail
  2. Comply with the Privacy Act and remember you are not allowed to collect e-mail addresses without consent
  3. Always give recipients an effective and legitimate out option
  4. If your e-mail is on the Web, community notice boards, and other public places, add a "no spam" tag to it to refute implied consent
  5. If they don't have it, you won't get it, so think about excising e-mail addresses from business cards and other places where you maybe giving consent.

On the other hand, the American CAN-SPAM ("Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing") legislation enacted earlier this year is based on "opting out" -- in other words anybody is entitled to send you whatever they like until you tell them to stop.

It's the pervasive nature of electronic communication which makes it effective, and for as long as serious flaws exist in largely ineffective anti-spam legislation like "Can Spam" (as it has become known), a difficult battle will become significantly harder.

There is much international finger-pointing between countries, blaming each other for the problem. The EU claims that 80 percent of its spam comes from America, while US anti-spam vendor Commtouch claims that 40 percent of spam there comes from Internet Protocol (IP) addresses in 125 countries, with most coming from China.

High-profile anti-spam company Brightmail says in the Asia-Pacific region, China accounts for 34 percent of spam, Korea 30 percent, and New Zealand, which has no anti-spam legislation, for 14 percent.

Australia produces only two percent, which perhaps says something for national decency or legislative effort. But with 98 percent of our problem originating overseas, source doesn't really matter -- it's the effect. The end game will be bi-lateral agreements between countries and Australia is taking a strong leadership role in the global community by enacting legislation early.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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ACS

Edward Mandla is National President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). The ACS attracts a membership (over 16,000) from all levels of the IT industry and provides a wide range of services. The Society can be contacted on 02 9299 3666, or email info@acs.org.au.

Visit this page for other ACS articles published by ZDNet Australia.