Net regulators from across the globe have promised to do everything they can to stem the flood of spam that is making e-mail increasingly arduous.
At the first-ever global meeting to address spam, run by the ITU 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.
"We have a resolve to move forward on a global basis to attack spam and abuse of the Internet," said Robert Horton, acting chair of the Australian Communications Authority and chairman of the meeting. "This is an important start to solving a problem that is costing businesses and consumers over $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 said is to have all countries introduce some form of anti-spam 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 said. Currently, only around 35 countries, primarily English-speaking developed nations, have introduced anti-spam laws, he said.
However, almost all countries, including 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. "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," he said. "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 said. "In time, we will learn what is the best regulatory solution."
Co-ordination of the regulatory work will be a complementary effort. While the ITU maintains relations with 189 countries, including all developing countries, the OECD 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 said.
The second step is to introduce the technical means for beating spam. Horton referred to recent remarks by Bill Gates that Microsoft aims to include spam filters and other security features in its e-mail technology within two years. Within the same two-year period, a regulatory infrastructure should also be in place, Horton said, 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 and mobile phone companies offering new e-mail services; consumer education to prevent users from clicking URLs in e-mail messages asking for confidential information, and international co-operation at various all levels, from government and industry to consumer, business and anti-spam 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 said. "That said, they would be silly not to co-operate 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."
Measures recommended by government officials at the conference will flow into a report forwarded to the working group on spam preparing for the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia in November 2005.
Horton has suggested holding a review meeting in July 2005 ahead of WSIS II, bringing together not only Net regulators and the ITU, but also representatives from the OECD, ICPEN and other global organisations.