Australia fights spam

Stop Press: Aus Feds do too little, too late

The End column, the Australian Industry Standard
Issue 3, 19 June 2000
by Neale Morison

In 1997 a Senator Murkowski, Republican, Alaska found himself representing an isolated population that resented the expense of the long distance call charges for downloading unsolicited commercial email. Murkowski's solution was to put forward a bill which was eventually passed 99 votes to zero in May 1998. The idea is that anyone sending an unsolicited email is required by law to give their address details and provide recipients with a way of removing themselves from the mailing list immediately upon request

At first glance it's both simple and fair, but it's an utter flop. For one thing, a request to remove yourself from a mailing list is to wily junk mailers merely a confirmation that they have hit a valid email address. For another, it doesn't deal with the issue of who pays for email marketing. Unlike advertising in magazines and direct mail campaigns, which cost the advertiser, email campaigns cost the sender virtually nothing. The ISPs who have to handle the mail are forced to upgrade their equipment as traffic hugely increases, and recipients pay for the download, and then have to sift through their crammed inbox to find their legitimate mail.

The bill has the effect of legitimising mass-mailed unsolicited messages, while simultaneously restricting commercial mail. Worst of all, it hands US Federal agencies special authority to intervene in Internet traffic, which will appeal to the Big Brothers in the audience.

On a roll, Murkowski introduced another bill in 1999 to deal with inbox privacy, which has not yet achieved the runaway success of Senate bill1618. Congressman Christopher Smith tried and failed to get a more restrictive bill through the House of Representatives to expressly forbid uninvited advertising by email.

Spam could take on an entirely new dimension with the rise in mobile messaging, as SMS and WAP become more widely available. The threat is that marketers will not only know that we are outside a clothing shop, but will know so intimately the condition of our underwear that they can pester us with a timely special. Of course they'll get it hopelessly wrong and offer discount flights to Fiji during an insurrection, but it will be annoying nonetheless.

It is refreshing, then, to see how our own Federal Government, in May 2000, has brought to bear on this issue the same depth of understanding and attention to detail with which it addressed net-porn. The Hon Joe Hockey has slapped his moniker on a piece catchily entitled "Building Consumer Sovereignty in Electronic Commerce - a best practice model for business".

Not for our lads this totalitarian approach of actually passing legislation. These are guidelines for industry self-regulation, "the preferred way to achieve the Government's objective of developing Australia as a centre of excellence in Consumer Sovereignty and electronic commerce". After all, self-regulation worked for the banks.

The spam section is here reproduced in full:

23. For commercial e-mail:

23.1 Businesses should not send commercial e-mail except:

23.1.1 to people with whom they have an existing relationship; or

23.1.2 to people who have already said they want to receive commercial e-mail; and

23.2 Businesses should have simple procedures so that consumers can let them know they do not want to receive commercial e-mail.

Take that, spammers! Packed into five brief lines, the very best of the dangerously naïve Murkowski scheme, stripped of its legislative teeth, and for good measure a glaring logical error. How do you conduct commerce at all if best practice requires each business to wait until contacted? I suppose you could draw straws, and the short straw would have to disgrace itself by sending a round of unsolicited emails to start things ticking over, after which honour would demand it withdraw and blow its brains out with its service revolver.

Forget law, forget self-regulation. Technology made the Internet what it is today. Here's a spam-busting scheme dreamed up Ian Davies, proprietor of Australian text retrieval software exporter Odyssey Development. Sadly someone else has already patented this idea.

Set up spam attractors - email addresses with no friends. They live high-risk life-styles by being on AOL, or posting to newsgroups, or being listed as owners of domains, and they receive nothing but spam. From the inboxes of these unfortunate virtual netizens you create a database of guaranteed spam. You or your ISP compares your mail to the spam-base. If a mail matches, it goes in the spam basket.

It's based on the law Good = Universe - Crap.