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No slap on the wrist for spam in South Korea

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

South Korean Internet users are getting spammed much less after their government enacted laws that slap huge fines on companies that send unsolicited e-mail.

The average Internet user in South Korea received 20 percent fewer e-mails in July, down from an all-time high of 43.4 per day in March, according to the Korean Information Security Agency, which attributed the decline to the new laws.

Pornographic spam dropped by 27 percent in that time, marking the first decline in three years.

South Korea is considered by many to be a leader in technology trends. It was among the first countries to see widespread use of wireless phones, and it has more high-speed Internet connections per person than any other country.

"Korea has been very active in this area," said Brian Hengesbaugh, a senior associate with the Chicago law firm of Baker & McKenzie, which practices international privacy law.

"I'm not sure if we should necessarily follow the lead, but we should take a look at what they're doing. Anyone who has turned the tide against spam is worth drawing lessons from."

The new laws, enacted in July, require online marketers in South Korea to flag their e-mails as advertisements and set up a free telephone hot line so people can opt out of future e-mails. The laws also forbid marketers from scanning Web sites for e-mail addresses.

Marketers who don't comply face fines up to $853,000.

Spam makes up about half of all e-mail sent and costs U.S. businesses as much as $10 billion each year in lost productivity and services, according to Ferris Research.

Congress is addressing similar legislation to help dam the flood of spam.

The Senate is considering an antispam bill, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, that would require marketers to post valid return e-mail addresses and allow the Federal Trade Commission to bring civil charges against spammers. That bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee in June.

Another bill sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, would create a "Do Not Spam" list that would allow people to opt out of receiving unsolicited e-mail.

"Spam is clearly an international problem, and every country has got to take its own steps," said Chris Fitzgerald, spokesman for Mr. Wyden. "But it's also going to require cross-based cooperation."

According to Boston technology research firm the Yankee Group, more than 57 percent of South Korean households have high-speed Internet access, compared with 49.9 percent in Canada and 25.6 percent in Japan. The United States ranks fourth, with 22.8 percent.

South Korea enacted its first antispam law in 1999 and has added new provisions and strengthened others every year since.

Last month, the South Korean government fined six Web sites for flooding Internet users with spam e-mails, including a site called Korea.com. The fines were between $3,400 and $4,300.

Some groups oppose antispam legislation, arguing that it would be ineffective.

Legal analysts also say U.S. legislators will have a harder time enacting antispam laws than their South Korean counterparts. That's because opponents of spam-restricting laws are expected to argue that they violate free-speech protections. South Korea has no law comparable to the First Amendment.

Mr. Hengesbaugh cautioned that the one-month decline in spam in South Korea does not prove legislation will work.

He suggested there may be other reasons for the decline, such as increasing effectiveness of spam filters. South Korea encourages the use of filters and has helped distribute filtering CDs through a nonprofit group called the "National Movement for a Clean Internet."

The FTC, which would enforce any antispam laws, declined to comment on the South Korean report.

On Aug. 19, FTC Chairman Timothy Muris criticized spam legislation during a summit held by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank.

"In the end, legislation cannot do much to solve the spam problem, because it can only make a limited contribution to the crucial problems of anonymity and cost shifting," Mr. Muris said. "Some of the proposed legislation, unfortunately, could be harmful or, at best, useless."

The Direct Marketing Association and many Internet-service providers supported some form of spam legislation, but have pushed harder for more prosecutorial staff at the FTC, industry self-policing and improvements in spam-filtering technology.