Wireless spam: How can it be stopped?

In our wireless world, can advertisers find you anywhere within cell range if you have a data-ready wireless phone turned on?

Internet users have for years been complaining about unwanted email, or spam, with messages that promise everything from quick cash to an enhanced love life. Consumers now are concerned about spam sent to their wireless devices such as Internet-ready phones, and Congress is taking notice.

One of the first bills introduced in the US Congress would make it a criminal act to send a solicitation to a wireless device without that individual's express permission. Democratic Representative Rush Holt has been one of the most vocal opponents of spam and first introduced this bill at the end of Congress last fall. However, the legislation is questioned both by the wireless industry and anti-spam crusaders.

"With the wireless industry moving to build spam out" of its infrastructure, said online privacy consultant Ray Everett-Church, "that is going to be a lot more effective than a new law."

Holt could not immediately be reached for comment. The UK is not currently considering legislation banning mobile phone ads.

Setting standards Everett-Church, co-founder of the anti-spam organisation, Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), said Holt has introduced legislation "before the system has been built to allow this problem to occur".

In November, the Wireless Ad Association released a list of industry guidelines that said "The WAA does not condone wireless targeted advertising or content (push messaging) intentionally or negligently sent to any subscriber's wireless mobile device without explicit subscriber permission and clear identification of the sender."

The WAA defined push messaging as including audio, short message service (SMS), email, multimedia messaging, cell broadcast, picture messages, surveys, or any other pushed ads or content. The guidelines advocate customer control of personally identifiable information, or PII.

This endorsement of "opt-in", meaning a consumer must offer specific consent before information can be sent to his or her device, puts the wireless industry much farther down the road to privacy than the larger Internet, Everett-Church said. He said advertisers want to make sure people actually read wireless ads and don't dismiss them the way junk email is dismissed.

Banning spam WAA chairman Tim DePriest said the industry must be careful as "wireless advertising has the potential to cause irreparable harm, expense to the customer, and undermine the value of an important communication line between customers and advertisers."

Holt and others in Congress have fought for several years to ban traditional spam, and a bill by Republican Representative Heather Wilson passed the House overwhelmingly last year after some controversial provisions were removed. But no significant anti-spam bill has ever become law, in part due to First Amendment concerns.

CAUCE has argued that it's not a violation of the US Constitution if spammers are forced to reimburse network providers and consumers the cost that results from the transmission and receipt of the unwanted email. It has been difficult, however, for lawmakers to determine a fair way to calculate those costs.

The online advertising industry has proposed its own set of guidelines for unsolicited email, but those guidelines aren't as strict as the ones proposed by wireless advertisers. In addition, the Internet has an open architecture, which makes it more difficult to control unwanted messages than in a closed, proprietary wireless network.

That's why Everett-Church, who was a major supporter of the Wilson legislation against spam last year, is less inclined to back Holt's wireless spam bill.

"If you plan anti-spam technology into the wireless infrastructure, you have a much greater chance" of eliminating spam, he said.

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