Spam may be a global problem but it's hurting Net users in developing countries more than their counterparts in industrialised nations, according to a new report [pdf] by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Numerous underdeveloped countries, especially in Africa and Asia, lack the knowledge, technology and money to effectively combat the growing flow of junk e-mail over their domestic communication networks. As a result, users in these regions suffer from more outages and less reliable service, and are often distrustful of the Internet - all factors that threaten to widen the global digital divide.
"Spam is a much more serious issue in developing countries than in OECD countries, as it is a heavy drain on resources that are scarcer and costlier in developing countries than elsewhere," the report states.
The report, prepared by Suresh Ramasubramanian, a consultant to the OECD, reflects many of the concerns voiced at a meeting on spam held last year with representatives of developing countries in preparation for the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December.
High volumes of incoming and outgoing spam are a severe drain on the meager available bandwidth in developing countries, according to the report. ISPs in developing countries face huge costs for receiving, storing and forwarding spam over their networks, and for hiring administrators to do spam filtering when their skills could be devoted to other tasks, it said.
Moreover, ISPs with lax anti-spam and security policies are likely to find their networks overrun by spammers. Spam will increasingly form more of their incoming mail streams, thus making e-mail practically unusable for their customers. Open relays, open proxies and machines infected with viruses or Trojan horses on their networks will become major spam sources.
Spam also digs deeply into the shallow pockets of users in developing countries. Users in these countries typically rely on dial-up Internet access at home or share access at cyber cafes with connections that are often slow and expensive as they have to pay for each byte of data they download.
Telephone infrastructure in developing countries is largely antiquated, adding to users' costs. After making a few attempts to log onto the network and finally get a connection, users are often disconnected and have to make several calls to establish a new connection. "All this effort and expense is completely wasted when the users finds that the downloaded e-mails are to a large extent random spam or viruses," the report states.
Not only that, users in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to malicious spam and viruses because they often avoid purchasing expensive licences for operating systems and anti-virus programs - worth a month's salary in many cases, according to the report. Consequently, they purchase cheaper - and most likely pirated - copies of software that is not only difficult to keep updated because it lacks proper licenses but is also a source of viruses.
To help curb spam and encourage people in developing countries to communicate via e-mail, authors of the OECD spam report listed several recommendations in its report. For a start, they urge governments to adopt legislation against spam and ISPs to invest in spam-filter technology or outsource their spam filtering to third-party providers.
The authors also recommend establishing computer security and incident response teams (CSIRTs) or computer emergency response teams (CERTs) to organise an effective response to major incidents, and call on ISPs around the globe to help each other fight the spread of spam.
And the ball doesn't stop there. The OECD spam experts also urge governments and ISPs in developing countries to launch widespread public education awareness campaigns in a move to reduce security risks from spam carrying viruses.
The 32-page OECD report can be found here.