Columns Archive

Industry Minister Should Put Spam Law Back on the Agenda

Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 25, 2006 as As Spam Flow Grows, Harper Government Sleeps [] 

Earlier this month Industry Minister Maxime Bernier traveled to Saskatoon to deliver the keynote address at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting.   Bernier's speech focused on the value of entrepreneurialism and emphasized the federal government's plans to establish a business environment that facilitates the development of new Canadian companies.

In the question period that followed, Bernier was asked about his efforts in combating spam, an ongoing nuisance that costs Canadian business millions of dollars while harming the consumer confidence needed to support emerging businesses.  Bernier indicated that he had just received the 2005 National Task Force on Spam report (I was a member of the task force) and would respond to its recommendations in the coming weeks.  

While he acknowledged that a "big group of experts" had called on the government to do something, he seemed to foreshadow a rejection of the Task Force’s legislative recommendations, commenting that "the question is, what can we do? And I'm not sure right now. Maybe the market will decide in the end."

Should the Minister take the time to carefully read the report, he will find that a broad cross-section of Canadians representing Internet service providers, marketers, and the public, do not share his doubts about the role of government.  

The Task Force report, which was received with approval from the current Conservative (then Liberal) Minister David Emerson, included a unanimous recommendation for Canadian anti-spam legislation.  It noted that Canada was quickly becoming one of the only Western countries to neglect the issue and was at risk of developing into a haven for spammers seeking refuge in countries with lax anti-spam regulations.

Moreover, the Minister's claim that he only recently received the Task Force report is contradicted by documents recently obtained under the Access to Information Act.  They reveal that just days after Bernier was sworn in as Canada's Industry Minister, department officials delivered a briefing titled "Building Business Confidence and Consumer Trust Online."

The briefing warned that spam now dominates email, with some reports suggesting that up to 80 percent of all email entering businesses is spam.  Moreover, it noted that the increase in spam "causes e-mail systems to experience unexpected overloads in bandwidth, server storage capacity and loss of end-user productivity" and that "spam has become more dangerous, and a primary vehicle for network threats such as viruses, spyware, and phishing."

The briefing concluded that these threats were leading to an erosion of trust and confidence, discouraging consumer e-commerce, changing online behaviour, and resulting in diminishing faith in online banking.  To address the concerns, department officials pointed to the Task Force’s recommendation of anti-spam legislation that would cover unsolicited commercial email, false and misleading email header data, counterfeit addressing, and the unauthorized collection of email addresses.

Months after this briefing and nearly a year and a half after the Task Force submitted its report, the government has done little to address the issue.  In fact, the Chair of the Canadian Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, a leading anti-spam group, recently expressed concern that the Minister had "ignored" the report.

While the government has yet to act, Canada’s ISPs have responded to many of the Task Force report's private sector recommendations, instituting new protocols designed to reduce the amount of spam that leaves their networks.  Those changes have had a dramatic impact, with Canada dropping off the "dirty dozen" list of the top 12 spam-sending countries.  

Anti-spam filters and public education have also had a positive impact by blocking a greater percentage of in-bound spam messages and ensuring that more Canadians understand the harm in responding to spam messages, since that practice invariably leads to increased spam.

Despite those successes, there remain many Canadian-based spamming organizations, leaving ISPs to shoulder an ever-increasing burden of processing spam messages with the costs likely passed along to their customers.  Moreover, spam has spread beyond email, popping up on blog postings, instant messages, and Internet telephony services.

The evidence is unequivocal – notwithstanding the best efforts of the private sector, the spam problem has not disappeared and there is no reason to believe that the market alone will solve this problem. The privacy sector and the public have done their part.  The question now must be why, after being advised months ago by his own officials that the government needed to take action, the Industry Minister has left Canadian business and consumers without the protection that seemingly everyone else agrees they need.     

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He was a member of the National Task Force on Spam. He can reached at or online at

One Comment

  1. V.P Operations, Machineco
    Michael Geist has produced as excellent commentary on the need for a focussed response to spam by our federal government. This is not a partisan
    issue. All levels of government,business and the private sector, today obligatorily on the internet, suffer.
    Surely the incidence of spam by now, an utter pestilence on the IT skyline, has passed any rational level of tolerence by
    those who can make a difference- the ‘government’.
    Spam can even be viewed as a human rights issue, the rights and freedoms of individuals (and businesse) to NOT have
    the majority of their communications so invaded.

    I would back all GOVERNMENT intervention, even introducing (e.g.) a compulsory 1¢ charge for each email message, no matter to or from whom- and under ALL circumstances. ISP’s would have their spam costs reduced to a trickle and the rest of us could reclaim our Inboxes
    and rejoice!

    John Doak