Thought for the day:Parliament's porno puzzler

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Concerns about the growing plague of...

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Concerns about the growing plague of pornographic spam are finally reaching Westminster. I very much doubt that Parliament will show more than a passing interest in what is very clearly a growing problem, reflected in the many e-mails from CW360.com readers on the subject.

Labour MP Derek Wyatt, chair of the Parliamentary Internet Committee, believes that very few MPs understand the Internet industry. He is seeking an amendment to the Communications Bill, making ISPs responsible to regulator Ofcom for content in much the same way that television companies are regulated.

Wyatt, with whom I have been having an interesting e-mail dialogue, apparently sent the speaker of the House of Commons "at least four pages of truly disgusting colour photos that had found their way into my inbox and have asked four times for an adjournment debate in the Commons but it still hasn't been discussed".

In May, the European Parliament voted to ban spam but as the great proportion of the menace starts life outside the EU, it's almost impossible to regulate without co-operation from the US.

According to research from Nexor, explicit pornographic spam is growing by 20% a year. Messaging company Brightmail took a snapshot of all the spam it intercepted over a 24-hour period beginning on 20 August, and found that approximately 55% of this related to money, such as debt reduction, money laundering offers from the alleged relatives of deceased Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, and much more.

ISPs, through their association the ISPA, oppose moves to hold them responsible for content, arguing they are merely "providing the infrastructure and not the content" and that "ISPs are mere conduits for information - a point recognised in law". They have a case and many ISPs are already working hard to control the spam problem which, after all, chews up their bandwidth.

There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between the ISPs and pornography. Back in the early days of Internet access in the late 1990s, I was a director of two ISPs and several of us on the board had a moral problem with some of the nastier and more offensive alt.binary newsgroups, so we switched off access through our servers.

The result was a 40% drop in traffic and the loss of subscribers. For the board it became an economic decision very quickly, restricting access would have put us out of business and the decision was reluctantly reversed.

Spam is different but not so very different, other than its "push" rather than "pull" on the part of the subscribers, who have no choice in the matter. I told Wyatt that attempting to regulate UK ISPs won't really achieve the otherwise sensible goal he has in mind unless every piece of e-mail traffic is filtered. This would give us something akin to the RIP snooping legislation by another means.

What did interest me most recently was an e-mail from MSN encouraging me to upgrade to the paid Hotmail alternative to avoid my mailbox filling up over the summer weeks and, consequently, the service being suspended.

You may recall that I have asked Microsoft, repeatedly, to comment on the spam problem and have received nothing but arrogant or embarrased silence in return.

Given that Hotmail is used by millions upon millions of people and that it presents arguably one of the largest spam channels, you might have thought that Microsoft would be playing the good citizen and joining the debate.

But consider for a moment. Microsoft wants to encourage users to pay for Hotmail and has restricted the size of the inbox. I receive at least 15 junk e-mails each day and even with my filters turned on, my mailbox will fill up very quickly if I don't manage it ruthlessly. So one has to ask whether it's in Microsoft's commercial interest to take a moral position on spam, if spam, after all, is likely to be the single most likely reason that people would pay to expand the size of their Hotmail inbox?

To be honest, I don't know what the answer is and I'm not sure whether sending "disgusting photos" to the speaker of the House of Commons, is the best solution to the problem, but it's an alternative idea if you haven't got Bill Gates' e-mail address. If only I could find his e-mail address, I'd to give to Derek Wyatt.

What is your view?
Can any legislation control porno spam? Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.
This was last published in September 2002

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