Spam: America's unwelcome export

America: The land of herbal Viagra pitches, offers for graphic teen pornography, and low-interest-mortgage hard sells? That's the global face of the United States, thanks to spam, say Web experts from around the world.

"We are learning what American culture is through spam," said Motohiro Tsuchiya, a professor at the International University of Japan's Center for Global Communication.

Spam, whether from the U.S. or elsewhere, has reached a crisis stage globally, and the world must unite to fight it, according to panelists at a Federal Trade Commission conference in the US on spam this week.

Strict Asian Laws

In Japan, 80 percent of the unwanted e-mail comes from other countries, especially the U.S., Tsuchiya said. The average Japanese Internet user gets between 10 and 30 spam messages each month, he said.

But Americans online get that volume of spam each day, according to ISPs.

Tsuchiya attributes the relatively low level of spam in Japan to federal laws against it, strong technical prevention measures by ISPs, and pure social pressure.

Registering a Web site domain name in Japan requires submitting more detailed personal data than in the U.S., he said. Also, Japanese ISPs enforce strict antispam policies and use tight filters, he said.

"Spammers don't want to take the risk of legal" repercussions, Tsuchiya said. They are also shamed out of business in Japan, where community sanctions rule the conscience, he said.

South Korea's tight antispam laws are driving out spammers, which sometimes come to the U.S. to continue operations, according to Dr. Hyu-Bong Chung of the South Korean government's Information Security Agency.

In January, the South Korean government banned spam that is wireless and hurts minors, and forbade harvesting the Web for e-mail addresses from its 40,000 servers. Sixty percent of e-mail in South Korea is spam, Chung said. The South Korean government has received more than 17,000 complaints about spam so far this year, Chung said. That's up astronomically from the mere 254 complaints in 2001, he added.

Europe Has Options

The European Union is crafting antispam regulations that emphasize an opt-in approach. Member states can choose which EU regulations to implement, said Philippe Gérard, a legal and regulatory officer at the Directorate-General Information Society of the European Commission.

A French study found that 84 percent of spam e-mail in that country is written in English, said Marie Georges of the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés, with 8 percent of unsolicited e-mail messages in Asian languages, and just 7 percent in French.

Most pornographic spam is written in French, Georges said. French-language porn accounts for 55 percent of the porn spam in that country, while 42 percent is written in English.

Forty percent of spam messages written in English are sales pitches for financial services, which make up just 5 percent of French spam, according to the study.

Ongoing Challenge

But foreign spam may be growing, according to David Crocker, principal of Brandenburg InternetWorking in the United States. Spam from Asia and South America increasingly clogs his e-mail in-box.

Several bills already in Congress or soon to be introduced aim to zap the spam epidemic. Most panelists at the three-day conference agree the solution lies in federal legislation.

However, since the Internet transcends national borders, national laws will barely tackle the problem, said John Patrick, chairman of the Global Internet Project.

"It's very easy to forget the Internet is global," he said. Spam "works exactly the same in Burlingame as in Boston. We're really kidding ourselves."

New technological tools to beat spam might surprise people and calm the urge to overlegislate, Patrick said, adding, "The market can regulate this."

Internet gurus warn that wireless spam is the next frontier in the United States. The FTC lacks a definitive count on the amount of wireless spam in the U.S.

In Japan, cell phones and personal digital assistants already suffer from the unwanted missives. The Japanese government received 173,000 complaints of wireless spam in 2001, although the number fell to just 74,000 the next year.

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Elsa Wenzel

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