With a strict anti-spam law two months old, the Australian government has responded to questions over its effectiveness with a classic ploy - blaming it all on neighbours and rivals New Zealand.
Australian government speaker Andrew Maurer told a workshop on anti-spam measures in the New Zeland capital, Wellington, that 14 percent of spam received in the Japan/Pacific region came from New Zealand and only two percent from Australia.
The figures evoked scepticism from the audience. Maurer had no timeline data that would indicate any correlation with the introduction of the Australian law, which began active enforcement on 10 April.
One delegate challenged him directly on whether "the levels of dross have dropped". Maurer, from the Commerce Department's Information Economy division, formerly the National Office of the Information Economy, acknowledged that there is no clear evidence of a drop yet. But "the legislation has done some good", he said, because without it there would probably have been more growth in spam. An argument in the finest traditions of politics.
Whatever the comparative statistics, participants were unanimous that spam needs attention and largely agreed that the Australian Act offers a useful model. The prospect of a New Zealand without a law becoming a spam haven clearly looms large.
Associate IT Minister David Cunliffe reaffirms his government's commitment to anti-spam law in ever stronger terms as the months go by. While the attack on spam must be "multi-pronged", involving industry self-regulation, education and international agreements, "there will be standalone [New Zealand] legislation and that legislation will have teeth", he told the workshop.
Exactly how many teeth and where they would be placed was a question that occupied the afternoon of the day-long conference. The morning included what was generally acknowledged as valuable input from Australia. Maurer explained the rationale behind the law, and particularly the contentious provisions excluding charities, political parties and religious organizations from having relevant mass-mailings considered spam. To extend the ambit of the law beyond "commercial" messages would risk trespassing on freedom of speech, he said.
It was not appropriate even to require religious and political messages to incorporate an unsubscribe facility, since this requirement could only be applied to messages which met the core definition of spam, Maurer told Computerworld. The lack of such a condition met a puzzled reaction from the New Zealand audience, and there is likely to be pressure to require such a facility in any local legislation.
Debate also surrounded the contention that unsolicited messages could be sent to a recipient whose address had been "conspicuously published", as long as they are relevant to that person's calling.
To a suggestion that the provision would discourage people from publicising their e-mail addresses, Maurer noted that there is always the option of appending a note stipulating "no commercial messages".
There is general agreement with the Australian law's decision not to factor "bulk" into the definition. Trying to do so would involve specifying a limit and spammers would take care to stay barely within it. The material issue, New Zealand observers agree, is consent, not repetition.
Anthony Wing, manager of the anti-spam team at the Australian Communications Authority charged with policing the law, met general agreement with his point that compromised PCs are a big factor in spam propagation. Computer owners need to make regular checks for trojans and the like, he says, and firewalls need to screen outward as well as inward traffic.
The Australian government also recently signed up with the UK and US government to tackle spammers internationally.