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Stopping Spam: Creating a Stronger, Safer Internet
Report of the Task Force on Spam
What Is Spam And Why Is It A Problem?
In just a few years, unsolicited commercial email, now generally known as "spam," has gone from being a minor nuisance to becoming a significant social and economic issue, a drain on the business and personal productivity of Canadians, and a cloak for criminal activity. Spam impedes the efficient use of the Internet for personal and business communications, and threatens the growth and acceptance of legitimate e-commerce.
In 2000, email traffic reports indicated that spam amounted to about 10 percent of the total volume of electronic mail. As the chart presented in Figure 1 shows:
- by the end of 2002, the amount of spam had climbed to 30 percent;
- by the middle of 2003, the amount of unsolicited commercial email had surpassed that of legitimate communications; and
- by the end of 2004, spam made up 80 percent of global email.
The growing volume of spam is now a well-recognized pricing factor for companies that provide facilities for Internet services. This cost is ultimately paid for by organizations and businesses that use electronic communications to conduct their business. It is also paid for by personal users who communicate through the Internet with family, friends and others.
While the overall volume of spam continues to rise, the nature of the spam threat continues to evolve. Improved filtering techniques and other anti-spam safeguards adopted by ISPs and consumers have helped to somewhat reduce the number of spam messages that are reaching the mailboxes of individual Internet users. One public opinion survey, published in Ipsos-Reid's Canadian Inter@ctive Reid Report for the fourth quarter of 2004, reported that Canadians believe they are receiving less spam now than a year ago. Nevertheless, as Figure 1 illustrates, the persistent upward trend remains a significant problem for ISPs and users because of the costs of blocking or removing spam from networks.
More significantly, there is disturbing evidence that, even if the volume of traditional spam were to decline, the incidence of new threats posed by mutations of spam would still clearly be on the rise. These broader threats to Internet security include spyware, viruses, phishing and botnets, to name but a few. Recent reports show that these threats have dramatically increased in the year since the Task Force began its work. For example:
- MessageLabs reported seeing 18 million phishing emails in 2004.
- The October 2004 AOL® – National Cyber Security Alliance Online Safety Study reported that 80 percent of American users have spyware or adware on their computers, and that 89 percent of those users did not know that these programs were there.
The new mutations of spam undermine consumer confidence in the Internet as a platform for commerce and communications. Because of this, the potential of information and communications technology to buttress productivity, and the ability of e-commerce to attract investment, create jobs and enrich our lives, is constrained not only by torrents of spam, but by the deceptive, fraudulent and malicious activities that sometimes accompany it.
Principles Guiding Canada's Anti-Spam Action Plan
The degree of public concern and the growing costs to our economy have made it clear that government, industry, marketers and consumers must work together in a new partnership to reduce and control spam.
It is also apparent that spam is a multifaceted problem that requires coordinated action on several fronts in order to achieve real and measurable progress. Canadian stakeholders and international partners are all in agreement on the following principles:
- Commercial email sent with the prior and ongoing consent of the recipient is not spam and has a legitimate place in e-commerce.
- Commercial email sent without prior consent – or that is deceptive, fraudulent or malicious – is spam and should be prohibited.
- There is merit in examining the use of current laws and possible new laws to fight spam. However, unless enforcement agencies assign a high priority and allocate sufficient resources to anti-spam actions, laws alone will not stop spam and related threats, even if these laws are accompanied by technical measures, better business practices and changes in consumer behaviour.
- There is a consensus that government should not dictate detailed technical solutions. Instead, government should encourage and assist all partners in using and sharing the best available technical solutions and the best consumer and business practices.
- An effective solution to spam will require not only concerted actions by all partners in Canada, but also greater cooperation at the international level. Although Canada, unfortunately, remains a source of some spam, the great majority of spam emails received by Canadians originate outside Canada. An effective international response to spam will require a coordinated international approach involving governments and other stakeholders.
Mandate, Structure and Working Methods of the Task Force on Spam
On May 11, 2004, the Minister of Industry announced An Anti-Spam Action Plan for Canada designed to reduce the volume of unsolicited commercial email, and established a Task Force on Spam to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan. Chaired by Industry Canada, the Task Force brought together experts and key stakeholders representing ISPs, Canadian businesses that use email to conduct legitimate commercial activities and consumers.
The Task Force was given one year to oversee and coordinate the implementation of the Action Plan. After this period, the Task Force was asked to report on the progress made and to propose any new actions that might be required, including legislative initiatives.
Despite its relatively small number of members, the Task Force represented a broad range of organizations with stakes in the future of email communications, from individual users to large companies that develop and supply the software and equipment that fuels Internet growth. In order to organize its work and engage other stakeholders, the Task Force established five working groups, under the following titles, to address specific points contained in the Action Plan:
- Legislation and Enforcement
- Network and Technology Management
- Validating Commercial Email
- Public Education and Awareness
- International Collaboration
Membership in the working groups was open to all interested individuals and organizations. About 60 organizations answered the call. These are listed in Appendix A.
During its mandate, the Task Force was asked to bring key stakeholders together to review the implementation of the Action Plan and identify any other areas that might require further action. This was done through a national Stakeholder Roundtable held December 3, 2004.
The Task Force was also asked to consult all interested stakeholders and individual Canadians who might wish to express their views or make a contribution to its work. To do this, the Task Force issued a notice in the Canada Gazette in summer 2004, and established an online forum where individuals could express their views on any of the subject areas under consideration by the Task Force.
The Task Force's experience has shown the value and necessity of continuing with a multifaceted, multistakeholder approach to combatting spam. Although significant progress has been made in the fight against unsolicited commercial email during the past year, much remains to be done.
In addition, the new and much more serious threats to Internet security that are now emerging – such as spyware and identity theft resulting from phishing and other illegal online activities – heighten the importance of maintaining the multistakeholder momentum developed by the Task Force.
The Task Force has come to the conclusion that, in order to successfully wage the war against spam, it is necessary to establish a focal point that has the responsibility of coordinating the ongoing battle against spam and the illegal activities associated with it.
We therefore recommend the following:
The federal government, in partnership with other stakeholders, should continue to pursue a multifaceted strategy for stopping spam.
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