No stopping spam

Despite the fact there are laws against it, spam remains a thorn in our flesh.

Read time 5min 30sec

Spam has become another one of those things that drive us mad every day, like traffic jams, broken robots, people who chew with their mouths open, and rain when the washing is hanging outside.

The endless litany of unwanted SMSes and e-mails touting an offer no one wants is another irritation to deal with daily. We either ignore the onslaught, or bin it. Few people bother doing anything more serious about it.

This is the case even when the message concerned breaks a law or a code of conduct. Take the Consumer Protection Act, for example, which mandates when we can be sent spam, and details opt-out rules and sanctions against the intrusions.

This law is probably our strongest legal tool against spam, but its enforcement body, the National Consumer Commission (NCC), has woefully failed to implement it. In fact, judging by the slew of cases the NCC has lost, and complaints from those who battle to, um, complain, the body has not been a rip-roaring success.

The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act deals with spam in a limited manner, but does allow people to complain to the Consumer Affairs Committee. No, I've never heard of it either; apparently it's a Department of Trade and Industry entity, as is the NCC.

There is the Wireless Application Service Providers' Association, which has a code of conduct dealing with cellular spam, the need for opt-out mechanisms, and a complaint forum. Yet, even lodging a complaint and following it through is a taxing experience.

I'll bet my bottom dollar that few people, if any, officially complain about how many messages clog up their phones and inboxes daily. While this is sad, because it lets the bulk of senders get away unchecked, having bothered to do something about this scourge myself, I understand why no one else does.

Frankly, it's not worth the time and effort. Even when you finally get an outcome, the punishment is not levied against those who are actually guilty.


Sadly, I went to the bother of finding out how broken the system is, when I lost my rag after the third SMS from a car dealership, the third such message without an opt-out option. I decided, to hell with spammers; all and sundry were going to pay, and I made it my free-time work to lodge complaint after complaint.

Six months later, I've had one quasi-successful outcome, and the wireless application service provider was fined. Not, please note, the car dealership - a brand I will never deal with again, because I carry grudges like that.

In this instance, it seems the car dealership had been using three service providers as routes for its spam, and the last sucker bore the brunt of my anger. What is the point of a system where I can complain until I am blue in the face and the person at fault is blissfully unaware?

And that's when there is even a complaint mechanism to start with.

There's a very real cost involved in fighting spam, and it's a cost we all bear.

Spam arriving via e-mail is an altogether different story, because there does not seem to be anyone to complain to. The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA), which I thought would care, told me politely to go away.

In fact, it said: "There is no entity which provides a service where you can forward spam and have a complaint lodged. Unfortunately, ISPA can only accept complaints against ISPA members as ISPA has no jurisdiction against non-members.'

My options were to confirm that I am alive, and have a mailbox that can be bombarded; by unsubscribing; or telling off the spammer by using a template, which would also serve to prove my existence. Getting a spammer listed as such on ISPA's Hall of Shame is, apparently, the prerogative of ISPA members who send through complaints, and the offender is listed when there's enough body of evidence.

I suppose this is better than nothing at all, and it is nice the South Gauteng High Court vindicated the Hall of Shame, which may embarrass some offenders into stopping.

Up in smoke

The problem with spam is that it is not only an irritant. The amount that clutters up inboxes is the tip of the iceberg, and ISPs have spent goodness knows how much cleaning up the rest of the pipe; as much as 90% of all traffic.

There's a real cost involved in fighting spam, and it's a cost we all bear, because it pushes up the price we pay for services, and trims productivity, because we are distracted by bleeps. Spam, be it e-mail or SMS, also adds traffic to already burdened mobile pipes.

Operators spend billions each year on increasing capacity, and because that money has to come from somewhere, the cost to us cannot be cut by a vast amount without crimping the cash flow that goes into the network.

Imagine how much less we would all pay if the traffic was cut by even 10% if spam declined. That would help get more people talking, e-mailing, and growing the real economy.

Spam also wastes my spare time and energy when I could be doing something constructive, such as teaching a kid how to use a PC, which would be a far more valuable contribution to the economy.

At a time when we desperately need to grow the economy, perhaps those in charge should seriously consider actually policing the laws that are in place, and making sure they work, instead of dancing around issues that affect all of us.

Yes, spam is a small example of where intervention is needed, but it's clear from the NCC's failures, and the absence of an actual watchdog in the form of the Consumer Affairs Committee, that when the Protection of Personal Information Bill comes in, we have no hope of having our data protected.

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