Hard News by Russell Brown

44

Freely-exercised contempt

One of the more familiar arguments against a homegrown anti-spam law is that it would be purely a gesture; that all the serious spamming is done in foreign places. It was never a very good argument; and yesterday's events show why.

A story based on the BBC Radio 4 investigation that prompted yesterday's police raids in Christchurch notes the "New Zealand connection":

We weren't the only people on the trail of Elite Herbal. Henrik Uffe Jensen, an IT consultant from Denmark had also been plagued by their e-mails. So he turned the tables on them, setting a trap by placing request for pills, but hid a code in the order form.

This allowed him to see the location and the unique IP address of the internet user accessing his order. Henrik noticed one of the computers tracking his order was in New Zealand.

Jensen has been on the trail for a while. He determined back in July that whoever was behind the penis-pumping spamhaus Herbal King (which is associated with Elite Herbal) was using connectivity provided by Ihug, and filed the appropriate abuse reports.

After being initially unresponsive, Ihug responded. His contact at Ihug suggested that the activity wasn't necessarily illegal -- which may well have been true. The Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act didn't come into force until September 5.

Things picked up markedly this month, when, as Jensen relates, the BBC investigation made some discoveries of its own -- and found Shane Atkinson at the end of one of its trails.

Anyone familiar with these matters will know Atkinson's name. His activities, exposed through a 2003 investigation by Juha Saarinen for the New Zealand Herald, have earned him his own Wikipedia entry.

Internet NZ tried to have him investigated by the Commerce Commission in 2003. But that attempt failed because there was no specific law covering spam activities, even on the egregious scale practiced by Atkinson's companies. The government was considering such a law even then, but indicated that issues with freedom of expression were problematic.

Atkinson and his Australian-based brother Lance were investigated the following year as part of a US Federal Trade Commission case, under that country's Can-Spam Act. The products being touted in that case were purported to contain human growth hormone. By that point Atkinson was claiming to have retired from his abusive activities.

It seems he had not. But now, according to the BBC, the bastard may have been got. These people invariably claim to be simply business trying to turn a dollar while the authorities seek to suppress their business communications.

It's much nastier than that. These kinds of operations can flood the internet with as many as 100 million junk messages a day (that's the figure Atkinson gave to Juha). We don't see most of that because it's filtered at the ISP level, but the sheer volume of this filth -- as much as 90% of all email -- is the major factor in ISP email failures. The cost of resources to deal with it has a direct impact on your internet bill. Such operations commonly make use of botnets -- networks of compromised PCs whose operation involves trespass onto your computer and the theft of its use. The products being touted are commonly worthless and occasionally deadly.

We should, of course, allow for the possibility that Atkinson's continued denials of responsibility are legitimate, or that it's someone other than Atkinson who was raided. But it seems remote. And if he has been doing what Jensen and others allege, there is now a law to deal with it, and penalties of up to $500,000 to be levied.

It might be useful to remember which party voted against the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Bill in Parliament: the Act Party. The same party whose MPs have previously displayed a contempt for decent practice in their use of New Zealanders' email information. And whose chief fundraiser phone-spammed (not illegal, unfortunately) 80,000 Aucklanders this month. It's not free speech: it's freely-exercised contempt.

--

Staying geeky, the results of AUT's chunk of the World Internet project have been published. The media release dwells on our social selves:

Sixty-four percent of survey participants who used the Internet say it has increased their amount of contact with friends while 58% report an increase with family members.

"There is also strong participation in social activities through the Internet such as networking websites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace," Professor Bell says.

In contrast to this however, 22% say that since starting to use the Internet they spend less time interacting face to face with family they live with, although the amount of such time with friends has stayed the same.

And the report itself finds that 81% of us use the internet -- and that a possibly overestimated 68% of home internet connections are broadband.

The digital divide, as you might be able to guess, runs along lines of wealth, age, local and ethnicity, but even amongst households earning less than $25,000 a year, internet use stands at 58%. The highest rate of use (90%) is amongst Asians, while Maori (78%) are only just behind Pakeha and Pasifika people (66%) are the least wired group.

The perceived importance of internet connectivity is highest amongst the young, the urban and the wealthy, and lowest amongst rural people. Twice as many Asians (77%) as Māori (39%) rate the importance of the Internet highly

Also:

New Zealanders use the Internet frequently to conduct their everyday business. 60% buy things on the Internet and 62% book travel online. On an at least weekly basis, 40% of users access information about products online, 23% pay bills and 51% use
their bank's online services.

And:

71% of users rate the Internet as an important or very important source of information. This compares to 52% for newspapers and television and 42% for radio as rated this highly. The Internet even rates above interpersonal sources such as family and friends (56%).

And finally:

For 19% of users, a sense of identification with their ethnic group has increased (for 3% this has decreased). More Asians, Pasifika and Māori than Pakeha report an increase in their sense of ethnic identity.

33% of users say that their use of the Internet has increased their sense of identification with New Zealand (4% report a decrease). This is greatest amongst Asians (50%) and Māori (43%).

Interesting, to put it mildly.

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