Lawless Canada Emerging as a Spam Haven

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, The Tyee version, homepage version) focuses on the state of anti-spam legislation in Canada.  It notes that the recent Facebook case has placed the spotlight on Canada’s ongoing failure to address its spam problem by introducing long overdue anti-spam legislation.  The fact that organizations are forced to use U.S. courts and laws to deal with Canadian spammers points to an inconvenient truth – Canadian anti-spam laws are woefully inadequate and we are rapidly emerging as a haven for spammers eager exploit the weak legal framework.

Canada initially recognized the need to address the spam issue with formation in 2004 of a National Task Force on Spam that included a broad cross-section of marketers, telecom companies, and public policy groups (I was a member of the task force).  The Task Force unanimously recommended that the government introduce anti-spam legislation.

Years later, the issue continues to languish on the legislative agenda.  Successive governments – both Conservative and Liberal – have failed to introduce legislation (the notable exception is a Private Member's bill introduced by Senator Yoine Goldstein earlier this year).  During this fall's election campaign, the Conservatives promised to address the issue, yet a commitment to anti-spam legislation was missing from the recent Speech from the Throne that outlined the government's forthcoming priorities.

The continuing delays are particularly problematic given the increasingly criminal nature of spam.  Once regarded as a mere nuisance, the recent flood of spam spoofing the Canada Revenue Agency that encouraged recipients to forward highly sensitive personal information highlights the very real dangers of identity theft that can result from spam activities.

The Facebook case is only the latest illustration that government inaction has had an impact.  Companies anxious to target Canadian-based spammers have been forced to turn to other countries to do the job, while international law enforcement investigations into criminal spam activities run the risk of stalling in Canada since authorities may lack the requisite investigatory powers.

As the only G-7 country without anti-spam legislation, it was only a matter of time before spammers began to take advantage.  Cloudmark, a leading provider of anti-spam software, recently presented a data on the origins of spam emanating from web-based email providers such as Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo! at an international anti-spam conference in Germany.  Its research indicates that the majority of email – often up to 80 percent of traffic – from these popular services is now spam and that Canada ranked fifth worldwide as the source of web-based email spam, trailing only Iran, Nigeria, Kenya, and Israel.

Another recent study from California demonstrated how spammers profit from their activities by shifting the costs traditionally borne by marketers to the recipients of spam, namely Internet users.  Although many people immediately delete spam messages, the study found that spammers remain profitable even with very low response rates.

In light of its profit-making potential, no amount of anti-spam legislation will completely eliminate spam.  However, the experience to date in other countries has shown that tough new measures can reduce the amount of spam that originates from domestic sources.  Given the fact that there are still several major Canadian spamming organizations thriving under the current legal framework, the best way to reduce the amount of made-in-Canada spam is to change the law. 

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  1. Progress!
    I think it’s good progress that they took down that major spam botnet the other month. Yes, the volume is going up again but I think more will be taken down soon! But still not a good idea to throw out the spam filter just yet. My SpamBully has been a good companion over the years. Eventually, I think the risk will outweigh the reward on spam!

  2. like all idiots
    like all idiots they sooner or later run out a places to hide or friends.
    I have fought against popups and spam for years.
    Trust me when i say this a concerted effort without govt would and could do this but it takes a nice little team of about 50. YEA just 50

  3. The Botnet Is Back, Bigger, Better, More Bulletproof
    Anyone who thinks spammers will set themselves up to be taken down as easily again is deluded.

    I’ve spent time watching these guys inside and out and dammit if the Russian and Romainian mafia haven’t got involved. Who do you think owns the Szribi botnet? A few money thirsty blackhats?

    Fighting spam later than sooner will require more manpower and bandwidth than any of these old grayhairs in parliament are willing to donate and a few ill thought out laws full of exceptions will do nothing. Look what happened to the Do Not Call list! Marketers in the US are USING IT to contact people!

    Fighting spam requires a coordinated effort…. a cyberspace equivalent of INTERPOL’s war on child pornography.

    In the meantime folks, get a free account at and report everything that gets through.

    Keep your helmets on and let’s kick spam butt!

  4. cant touch this. says:

    Heres an idea. Use the same spamming tools for political means. By that I mean setup an anon: remailer, host. upload mailing list code. configure mailing list to remailer. Then spam the crap out of politcal parties, politicans (or throttling ISPs 😛 ) etc send them 1000 emails in a minute simultaneously. Its completely possible; Im not a spammer but I have tested the code to do it. I understand just how bad this could be which is why im all for anti-spam legislation. I could literally overload any single “free” or limited email account in no time preventing vital emails.

    Send spam demanding anti-spam legislation.

  5. Noah Quastel says:

    lawyer, researcher, geography graduate student
    My inbox is daily filled by messages using my own email address–so I cannot block, and the all relate to a company called “Canadian Pharmacy”. Could we get a class action together on identity fraud, e.g. misusing my name over the internet? I don’t have time to research this, but maybe someone could make a buck on this

  6. That reminds me…
    cant touch this. said:
    “Heres an idea. Use the same spamming tools for political means.”

    Been done, but to us. I like your idea better.

    I received junk from an MP I never heard of before (he is an MP, but not for my area or even the west where I live) and the topic was the Columbian trade deal. Well, I decided to parse the email through Spamcop and be dammed if he didn’t use an open proxy on the Spamhaus blocklist that was notorious, but he also used an anonymous mailer with an unroutable address to host.

    So, our MP’s are using the spam networks instead of the government computers????????????

    Noah Quastel – I get quite a few from “myself” too. A spam program will randomly chose an address off its spamlist to use as the “FROM” address. You are just getting the short straw those days.

  7. Lawless (spam) Canada? What are the facts?

    While I agree that we should have laws that cover nuisance email (along with other forms of communications) I think to characterize Canada as the fifth ranking spam country may be factually incorrect. I commented on this at my blog.