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Regulators tackle "cancer" of junk email

Unsolicited emails account for up to 85 per cent of messages sent over the internet

(swissinfo.ch)

Telecommunications experts from around the world, including Switzerland, have discussed ways of cracking down on spam at a meeting in Geneva.

The Swiss parliament is expected to begin debate later this year on legislation to ban junk emails.

The three-day conference was aimed at stepping up international efforts to block the spread of spam, also known as junk email.

“We have an epidemic on our hands that we need to learn how to control,” said Robert Horton, a senior Australian communications expert and chairman of the meeting.

Horton said software companies, such as Microsoft, and regulators had the means to bring spam under control within two years.

Hassan Makki, who represented Switzerland’s telecoms regulator at the conference, described spam as “the cancer of emailing”.

“Between 80 and 90 per cent of junk emails are attempts to rob web users,” Makki told swissinfo.

The conference, which began on Wednesday, examined legislation that could enable governments to take action against internet service providers which allow spammers to use their systems.

Joining forces

“If we don’t work together, we may see millions of people abandoning the net entirely out of frustration and disgust,” Robert Shaw, internet strategy expert with the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

However, many countries don’t have the necessary laws in place, making it difficult to launch an international offensive against spam.

The United States was the first country to introduce anti-spam legislation at the beginning of this year.

Australia has also developed some of the most advanced legislation to fight the clogging of private and corporate email boxes.

Last month, the two countries and Britain agreed to step up cooperation in the fight against spammers.

Laws have also come into force in Europe, but questions have been raised about their effectiveness.

Swiss law

The Swiss parliament is expected to begin debate on an anti-spam law after the summer break, as part of discussions about amendments to the law on telecommunications.

But any legislation is unlikely to be in place before the middle of next year. The draft foresees a ban on junk mail, with those who break the law facing prosecution.

“In the future, the recipient must have agreed to get commercial email,” said Roberto Rivola, spokesman for the Federal Office of Communications.

But Rivola conceded that national legislation was only the first step in the global battle against spammers.

“On its own, Switzerland can’t do much. We need international cooperation,” he told swissinfo.

Damage

The ITU estimates that up to 85 per cent of all email could be spam – more than a twofold increase on the previous year.

Spam, unsolicited sales offers and anti-spam protection against pornographic material, cost computer users about $25 billion (SFr30.7 billion) last year, according to the UN agency.

Spam has even spread to mobile phones: officials said nine out of ten unsolicited sales pitches in Japan are now sent as text messages to mobile phones.

They said increased efforts were also needed to build up criminal cases against people who use emails which appear to be genuine correspondence from reputable companies – a practice known as “phishing”.

Recipients of these fake emails are asked to confirm account details or credit card numbers. The accounts of the recipients, who respond to the messages, are then drained.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

A UN conference in Geneva has looked at ways to bring spam under control within two years.

Many countries, including Switzerland, have no specific anti-spam laws.

The three-day meeting brought together industry regulators from about 60 counties, including Switzerland.

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Key facts

Spam, also known as junk email, accounted for an estimated 85% of all messages on the internet in 2003.
The ITU estimates that anti-spam measures cost about $25 billion (SFr30.7 billion) last year.

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