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Report from UN Spam Meeting in Geneva

William Drake

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), held an ITU WSIS Thematic Meeting on Countering Spam from 7 to 9 July 2004, in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting was focused around various topics including: Scope of the problem, Technical solutions, Consumer protection and awareness, Legislation and enforcement, and International cooperation. The following is a report by William J. Drake, Senior Associate International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva.

The 3-day ITU WSIS thematic meeting on spam was interesting but inconclusive, just the start of a dialogue. Many speakers reiterated a standard set of points, e.g. the need for a multipronged approach including technical, self-regulatory, national legislative, and international cooperative measures, and the absence of a "silver bullet" solution. On the core issue of what kind of international cooperation may be advisable, the discussion alas failed to get into any sort of focused consideration of either substantive principles and norms or alternative institutional arrangements (i.e. regulatory harmonization vs. mutual recognition, MOUs, etc). But it was pretty clear that many developing countries, and a few people from industrialized countries (it was unclear whether they were really speaking of personal preferences or a settled position of their governments) favored the idea of a global MOU under ITU, which of course ITU would welcome. On the other side, the EU rep repeatedly said international cooperation is key, and as usual they might like a global approach that reflects and extends what the commission is doing in the 25, but what that means in practice was left vague. The US of course would not want to see any kind of international cooperation that involve real rules that obligated it to do anything about US-based spammers, who are the main source of the problem but are politically connected, and it's not eager to see the ITU taking on new functions, even when this could make sense (BTW, I'm told that the direct marketers and the Republicans on the hill are currently pushing through legislation to effectively repeal the legal ban on junk fax---anyone surprised that CAN SPAM was a sham?). That said, it is easy to imagine that the sort of approach recently taken by the US-UK-Australia MOU being scaled up to an OECD-wide instrument.

The open question of course is where that would leave the developing countries, who really need help. There's quite a lot of frustration that the industrialized countries keep telling them that adopting e-government, e-commerce, e-everything is the key to development, but when they move in that direction they become awash in all the spam, viruses, and other crap pouring out of the North over the net, which they're frequently not prepared to deal with effectively. An African delegate I chatted with said a lot of people in his country are getting discouraged from entering further into the e-world by dialing up expensive and slow connections and finding 90% of the mail to be garbage. Expecting that they'll all become power users and keep up to speed with the latest user side filtering and MS security patches is unrealistic. Much more can be done at the ISP level etc but there greater international technical assistance is required. Not surprisingly then, many developing countries want strong international rules etc. backed up by an institutional arrangement they can work with, i.e. ITU. ITU-D can certainly do more on the assistance side within the existing political mix, but has its limits. BTW it doesn't appear that the US FTC and parallel agencies in other OECD countries have much of a working relationship with the developing countries, many of whom lack similar agencies; part of the problem.

Main point of relevance here are that there was a pretty clear consensus that international cooperation on spam is regarded to be very much a part of Internet governance. Nobody contested that point. The question is what if anything the UN WGIG can say or do in this terrain given the nascent state of the wider dialogue and the North-South divisions over what cooperation should entail. At a minimum though I'd think it could recommend a significant increase in North-South technical assistance, which of course is far less controversial than suggesting actual solutions the US won't accept. Should the caucus at some point manage to put out some brief position statements as WGIG inputs, that angle might be something on which everyone can find common ground. A user/CS voice is needed here.

The meeting report is at located here [PDF].

The director of ITU-T is organizing an informal consultation [DOC] on Internet governance and the role of ITU therein for next Thursday July 15. This was originally for heads of delegation but is now open to anyone, if you'll be passing through Geneva.

By William Drake, International Fellow
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