Net regulators from around the globe ended last week's antispam conference sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with a pledge to try and turn the torrential flood of unsolicited commercial e-mail into a trickle -- if not dam it altogether.
At the first-ever global meeting of government representatives to address spam, which ended Friday in Geneva, regulators from around 60 countries agreed on the need to introduce legislation and embrace technology designed to curb unwanted e-mail, phishing and other forms of electronic fraud, which threaten to undermine the networked economy.
"We have a resolve to move forward on a global basis to attack spam and abuse of the Internet," says Robert Horton, acting chair of the Australian Communications Authority and chairman of the meeting hosted by the ITU, a unit of the United Nations. "This is an important start to solving a problem that is costing businesses and consumers over US$25 billion a year and could easily reach into the trillions if it destroys the Internet methods of the banking industry."
Around 80 percent of all e-mail today is estimated to be spam, according to the ITU.
A key first step, Horton says, is to have all countries introduce some form of antispam legislation and appoint a regulator. "If we can achieve this around the world, then we will have the foundation for a future global Memorandum of Understanding," he says.
Currently, only around 35 countries, primarily English-speaking developed nations, have introduced antispam laws, according to Horton.
However, almost all countries, including some in Africa, have shown interest in stemming the tide of spam and the use of e-mail to install spyware, spread viruses and steal sensitive information through phishing scams, which use unsolicited commercial e-mail to direct Internet users to web sites controlled by thieves but designed to look like legitimate e-commerce sites, according to the chairman. "Even the poorest countries in the world see the internet as their passport into a better life, in terms of the social, economic and educational opportunities that the internet brings," says Horton. "Spam is weighing down on these countries because they don't have the economic investment available to control this problem to the same extent as developed countries."
Attendees of the three-day conference asked the ITU's development sector to help draft model legislation from different case studies, according to Horton. "We don't know which legislation is best but that doesn't really matter; as long as some remedial action is available, that's a start and that's what is really important," he says. "In time, we will learn what is the best regulatory solution."
Coordination of the regulatory work will be a complementary effort. While the ITU maintains relations with 189 countries, including all developing countries, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ) already has compiled some "useful resource material" and put together a "tool kit" on what to do and not to do in implementing legislation, Horton says.
A second key step in the war against spam is to introduce technical means for fighting it. Horton referred to recent remarks by Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, that the US software giant aims to include spam filters and other security features in its widely used e-mail technology within two years. The Australian regulator pointed to antispam announcements from other IT vendors as well.
Within the same two-year period, a regulatory infrastructure should also be in place, Horton says, so that together with a technical fix, a basis will exist to help "eradicate a fundamental threat to the information age."
However, several flanking measures are also needed in the battle against spam, the conference chairman added. These include: support from industry players, such as ISPs (internet service providers) and mobile phone companies offering new e-mail services; consumer education to prevent users from clicking URLs (uniform resource locators) in e-mail messages asking for confidential information, and international cooperation at various all levels, from government and industry to consumer, business and antispam groups.
"We need ISPs to come together with ethical codes of conduct, which they can supervise because they are the control merchants in this international network -- their cooperation is essential," Horton says. "That said, they would be silly not to cooperate because what we have here is potentially the downfall of the banking system, for instance. The whole case study of banking is very largely dependent now on internet-based methods."
As for international cooperation, Horton has called not only on the ITU and OECD to collaborate in developing a global framework, but also numerous other global groups, including the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) and the Internet Society
Measures recommended by government officials at the ITU antispam conference will flow into a report that will be forwarded to the working group on spam preparing for the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia in November 2005.