China wrestles with growing spam problem
Suresh Ramasubramanian knows about outsourcing. The company he works for, Hong Kong-based Outblaze Ltd., has made a business out of running e-mail and Internet services on behalf of other companies. But there is an outsourcing trend he and others are fighting to stop.
As China marks the tenth anniversary of its first full connection to the Internet, the growing number of spammers who have moved part of all of operations to China is a target for people like Ramasubramanian, who is Outblaze's manager of security and anti-spam operations and a coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Coalition Against Unsolicited E-mail (APCAUCE).
"The situation seems to be that like a lot of other things, spam seems to be getting outsourced as well," he said. "American spammers hire local Chinese spammers who install servers at a Chinese ISP's (Internet service provider's) data centers and host or maintain the spammer's Web sites, run scripts and send out spam."
The result is a flood of spam from China that has pushed the county to No. 2, behind the U.S., on the London-based Spamhaus organization's April ranking of the worst "spam countries." A recent survey by Commtouch Software, which provides an anti-spam product, found that 71 percent of the Web sites referenced in spam e-mail were hosted in China.
The spammers using China are unlikely to be Chinese and most of the spam they send is directed out of the country, Ramasubramanian said. In the past, spam fighters say they've had a hard time convincing Chinese system administrators that their networks have been the source of unwanted e-mail. But that attitude is changing as a more spam is directed at Chinese users and complaints from Chinese users multiply.
A July 2003 survey found that on average 55 percent of the e-mail received by Chinese Internet users was spam, according to a presentation delivered by Li Yuxiao, director of the anti-spam coordination team at the Internet Society of China, at an APCAUCE conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, earlier this year. By January, this year that figure had risen to almost 58 percent.
In terms of the annoyance spam represents for Chinese Internet users, Li estimated that 47 billion pieces of spam were received by Chinese users in 2003 and a collective 1.5 billion hours were wasted reading and deleting spam. The economic loss attributed to spam was put at 4.8 billion renminbi (US$581 million).
One such user, Hu Yong, chief consultant at ChinaLabs, said spam is becoming a big problem, especially for people who frequently use the Internet. Yong relies on a spam filter set up by his e-mail service provider, Sina Corp., to keep his mailbox free from junk e-mail messages.
"If the service providers do not come out with some kind of solution, you will be bombed with spam and it takes a lot of time and it's a great waste," he said.
Filtering services installed by providers to protect users like Hu have been at the forefront of China's fight against spam but that is beginning to change.
"Until recently, the focus of the local Internet regulatory authority in China, the Internet Society of China (ISC), has been controlling spam inbound to Chinese e-mail users," said Ramasubramanian. That is now changing and the group is determined fight spam more aggressively, he said.
The ISC began getting tough on August 8, 2003, when it published its first spam blacklist. It contained the IP (Internet protocol) addresses of 225 servers responsible for sending spam, including 23 in China, 97 in Taiwan, 4 in Hong Kong and 101 located elsewhere in the world. The list delivered a one-month ultimatum to ISPs hosting the servers: cut the spammers off or we'll start blocking traffic from your network.
The ISC wouldn't comment for this article on the effectiveness of the list. But at the APCAUCE Kuala Lumpur meeting earlier this year it said spam dropped 26 percent during the two months after the first list was published. Three subsequent lists have been issued, one in November last year, one in February and the most recent in April.
As part of its battle against spam, the ISC also invited Richard Cox, a member of the Spamhaus team, to visit China to discuss measures that can be taken to cut down on spam. Cox visited China in April and met with representatives of major ISPs, e-mail providers and a representative of the Ministry of Information Industry (MII), which is the government agency that oversees the Internet.
"Some of the world's worst spammers are out there and we want (the Chinese) to understand the harm they are doing," said Cox. "We are beginning to get that message across."
Cox confirmed the ISC's determination to try to stop spam and said he was encouraged by the attitude of ISP representatives and the government official he met. His organization is in the process of establishing a Chinese-language version of Spamhaus (http://www.spamhaus.cn) that will be more accessible to local system administrators.
"We are very encouraged," he said. "We are also aware now of exactly what needs to be done."
Martyn Williams with Sumner Lemon