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Business • January 25 2004

Addressing SPAM together

The Ministry for IT and Investment as the chief promoter of a first class information society is seeking to address the scourge of spamming on a national level. "Spam" as applied to electronic mail means Unsolicited Bulk e-Mail (UBE). Unsolicited means that the recipient has not granted verifiable permission for the message to be sent. Bulk means that the message is sent as part of a larger collection of messages, all having substantially identical content. To be Spam, a message must be sent unsolicited and bulk.
Against the international developments, Malta’s accession in the European Union and the increasing usage of e-mail amongst civil society and the commercial sector, the Ministry for IT and Investment is articulating a number of actions, which will protect electronic communication from the threat of spamming. The Ministry is drawing up new policies that following a full consultation process will be translated into new rules against Spam.
The proliferation of unsolicited e-mail or Spam has reached a point where it creates a major problem for the development of e-commerce and the Information Society. Businesses and individuals spend an increasing amount of time and money simply to clean up mailboxes. Spam can seriously interfere with the operation of public services, and have an effect on any individual’s e-mail system. Spamming is a violation of privacy, irritating, wastes time and above all money. There has been in increasing growth in Spam, rising from 7% in April 2001 to 48% in June 2003. A recent EU estimate puts the figure of Spam mail at half of all global e-mail traffic. Most of these unwanted messages related to financial services and products, adult content and fraud.
Today the problem of Spam has reached a point where it is having a significantly negative effect on users’ confidence in using e-mail, and there are clear signs of a deleterious impact on the performance of the global e-mail network. Some commentators are even predicting that the continuing proliferation of Spam could mean the end of e-mail as an effective form of communication.
In fact, a recent survey, released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (October 2003) found our that some Internet users are so fed up with Spam that they are using e-mail less frequently. Additionally, more than half of e-mail users say that Spam has made them less trusting of e-mail in general. One fear is that legitimate e-mails might be turned away by filters designed to stop Spam. Another is that they may miss incoming e-mail from friends, family or colleagues amid the clutter of Spam in their inboxes.
The European Union is addressing this threat through a number of fronts ranging from legal, educational and technical. The directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, Directive 2002/58/EC stipulates that, with the exception of existing customer relationships, email marketing is only allowed with prior consent. This ‘opt-in’ characteristic also covers SMS messages and other electronic messages received on any mobile or fixed terminal. Member States had to apply and effectively enforce this regime by 31 October 2003.
Within this context, the Ministry for IT and Investment has drafted a Green paper on Spam. This document outlines the issues related to the problem of Spam and proposes a number of actions which can to be implemented to combat Spam. Following the issuance of Directive 2002/58/EC, European countries have enacted legislation which bans Spam. While some countries took a lenient approach with the UK differentiating between private and business e-mail addresses, Italy opted for a tougher stand by banning all kinds of Spam irrespective of the recipient and with penalties of up to 3 years in jail.
In view of the above, the proposed Green paper states that Malta can take different approaches vis-à-vis legislation. The European Union leaves it to each Member State on how to enforce legislation, as long as the enforcement is effective. Consequently, Malta’s approach in regulating Spam can range from a mild to a tough approach with rigorous penalties. There are many issues to be considered when deciding on the appropriate measures to be taken. For example, it is argued that tough legislation can have unintended consequences that can harm commerce regardless of any impact on Spam. On the other hand, a lenient approach to anti-spam legislation may create loopholes and therefore may not be sufficient to deter spammers.
This initiative by the Government occurs at a time when spam is seen in most countries as moving quickly from a nuisance to a serious problem. Email is now a significant communications channel and anything which affects its functionality is of concern. Many people find spam an unwelcome intrusion into their personal lives and are unhappy about the way in which their personal details, including email addresses, are collected and used without consent.
Combating Spam is a matter of all. We should not allow Spam to undermine the benefits of the information society. The Ministry for IT and Investment is inviting the public to give their views on the Green Paper on Spam. The document can be viewed on

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