The United Nations is aiming to bring a "modern day epidemic" of junk e-mail under control within two years by standardizing legislation to make it easier to prosecute offenders, a leading expert said Tuesday.
"(We have) an epidemic on our hands that we need to learn how to control," Robert Horton, the acting chief of the Australian communications authority, told reporters. "International cooperation is the ultimate goal."
The International Telecommunications Union is hosting a meeting on spam in Geneva this week that brings together regulators from 60 countries as well as various international organizations, including the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization.
The U.N. agency said it would put forward examples of anti-spam legislation that countries can adopt to make cross-border cooperation easier. Many states currently have no anti-spamming laws in place, making it difficult to prosecute the international phenomenon.
Top priority is "pornographic material … that may come to the attention of children," said Horton, who is running the meeting. "I think it's time we did something formally about this. We will have to come to some sort of general understanding."
As much as 85 percent of all e-mail may be categorized as spam, the ITU said, compared to an estimated 35 percent just one year ago. The vast majority is generated by a few hundred people, but authorities are not able to prosecute many of them under current legislation.
Spam and anti-spam protection cost computer users some $25 billion last year, according to the United Nations.
Now the problem is rapidly spreading to cell phones. Nine of every 10 spam messages in Japan are now directed to mobile phones as text messages, Horton said.
Spamming is also being used to perpetrate criminal acts. One technique — known as "phishing" — involves sending e-mails that appear to be genuine correspondence from reputable companies. Recipients are asked for their bank details to clear up a mistake and then money is bled from their accounts.
According to a Yahoo! Mail global survey of about 37,000 Internet users in 11 countries, 20 percent of U.S. residents admit buying products from spam purveyors. About 78 percent said they delete spam.
In Japan, by contrast, people deluged with junk e-mail are more active. Almost half of e-mail users said they send spammers angry replies to express their displeasure.
And, in a nod to how ubiquitous and popular e-mail has become, people around the world agreed that a loss of their e-mail would be more devastating for them than doing without radio or television.
Earlier this month, the Bush administration decided against creating a national do-not-spam registry to discourage unwanted e-mails, saying using current technology to do so might even generate more unsolicited sales pitches across the Internet.
The Federal Trade Commission said it feared that unscrupulous senders of unwanted e-mails would mine such a registry of e-mail addresses to look for new victims.
Instead, the FTC proposed "the widespread adoption of email authentication standards that would help law enforcement and ISPs better identify spammers."
"If, after allowing the private market sufficient time to develop, test, and widely implement an authentication standard, no single standard emerges, the Commission could begin the process of convening a Federal Advisory Committee to help it determine an appropriate email authentication system that could be federally required," the FTC said in a report.
In May, an FTC rule went into effect requiring that unsolicited commercial e-mail that contains sexually oriented material include the words "SEXUALLY EXPLICIT" in the subject line.
The rule also bars graphic images from appearing in the opening body of the message. Instead, the recipient must take some action in order to see the objectionable material, either by scrolling down in the e-mail or by clicking on a provided link.