Few would argue the fact that spam is an infestation that habitually invades inboxes everywhere. Spam is a problem for end users and it’s a headache for network administrators. Frequently gobbling up bandwidth and laden with threats of malware, spam just plain sucks. Because spam is traditionally associated with criminal activity, dangerous attachments, and despicable scams designed to separate honest people from their hard-earned savings, many countries have jumped into the arena to put in place laws or penalty systems that deal with those who can’t keep their urge to hit Send to themselves. Although many countries have made good on their legislation, some are notable for actually declaring war on spammers and making good on a promise: if you’re a spammer and you get caught, we’re going to make you pay. In Australia, Virgin Blue Airlines learned an expensive lesson in 2011; the British government saw fit to hammer a couple of texting-happy spammers late in 2012; and the U.S. has had mixed success with its CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.
But while governments tend to be very good at creating legislation, not all legislation is created equally, nor are all governments. Case in point: the government of Canada, which seems to have missed the point of legislation altogether: it only works if you, uhm, I dunno, actually enforce it. That seems to be an appropriate observation about Canada’s government, which made news more than two years ago when it passed the Fighting Internet and Wireless Spam Act of 2010. The law’s notoriety was due mostly to incredibly stiff penalties threatening trigger happy businesses which, as the adage goes, were not part of the solution. Under the original law, any businesses that posed part of the problem could expect fines up to $10 million, and individuals with their hands caught on the Send button could face penalties up to $1 million.
So the lawmakers in Canada voted yes on the bill, patted themselves on the back for being so proactive (that was sarcasm: clearly, the country is far behind the times, considering that Canada’s neighbor to the south passed CAN-SPAM a full 7 years earlier), and went back to doing whatever it is parliamentarians do. And so the new law sat. It was lauded by the media as the stiffest anti-spam legislation on the planet, and for a while, it seems, the Canadian government sat back and talked about how cool it is for being able to vote yes on a thing.
And nothing happened. There was lots of talk. Companies cried foul, complaining that their spamming activities would be severely hindered by profit-eating fines. Nobody felt sorry for those companies, except maybe their boards of directors. And nothing happened.
So jump to 2013. Baby New Year barely had a chance to put a fresh diaper on before the media outlets bombarded the newswire with stories attacking the Canadian government’s inaction. It’s a bit ironic, considering that some of the media companies are the same companies which criticized the law, fearing that it may affect their spam activities. According to CTV News, not only is the legislation a lame duck, it may be several years before Canadians can benefit from it. CBC News reports that an updated draft (draft? Really? Isn’t this supposed to be a law now?) has been released after “more than a year of closed-door consultations.” Apparently, the ISPs in Canada have gotten involved, asking for privileges to secretly “monitor potentially illicit user activity.” Huh? Weren’t we talking about spam? What antics are going on in Canada?
Another article uncovers the suspicions of Michael Geist, an Internet law expert at the University of Ottawa, suspicions which reveal the true driving force behind the legislation’s inactivity. Industry Canada, a federal agency dedicated to supporting businesses in Canada, has been under immense pressure from Canadian business groups to “water down the legislation.” Hmm.
A law is not a law unless it’s enforced. And this law is troublesome, not just because it’s unenforced, but also for what it represents for countries across the globe. While many countries have passed legislation, track records for enforcement have been spotty. In many ways, Canada is a global leader, a G8 country that has a reputation for being progressive and highly connected in the Internet world. Other countries planning to jump into the arena of anti-spam laws might look at Canada to see how it makes out with what was originally thought to be the toughest anti-spam law to date .
Turns out it’s anything but.