WORLDBEAT : China gets tough with spammers

The Chinese government is ratcheting up its efforts to fight unsolicited e-mail, or spam, in a campaign that has a distinctly political flavour but officials face an uphill battle to get the problem under control.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) announced last week that it has begun a joint campaign with the country’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and Ministry of Information Industry (MII) to bring an end spam in China. In a sign that the problem is being taken seriously at the highest levels in China’s government, the announcement was made in conjunction with the Information Office of the State Council, China’s highest administrative body.

China’s anti-spam campaign is aimed at more than just Internet purveyors of Viagra or low mortgage rates. In addition to spam offering pornographic content or links to gambling sites, the MPS — which oversees China’s police force and is believed to be tasked with blocking Internet access to sites deemed undesirable by government officials — said the campaign is aimed at cracking down on “reactionary” spam.

The term “reactionary” is a political label that has long been used to describe individuals and content that are deemed subversive or threatening to the Chinese government.

This isn’t the first time that Chinese officials have painted the fight against spam with a political brush. Among the more recent examples, a Sept. 2003 statement issued by the Internet Society of China (ISC) classified some unsolicited e-mails as having “evil intentions.” With members drawn from Chinese government bodies, Internet service providers and companies, ISC has led a high-profile effort to root out Chinese servers used to distribute spam and to block access to overseas and domestic servers identified as sources of spam.

But politics is not the only reason — or even the most important reason — the Chinese government is going after spammers. More than half of all e-mails received by Chinese Internet users, amounting to tens of millions of e-mails each day, are spam, the MPS said. With so much spam flowing through the country’s networks, getting to grips with this problem is necessary to guarantee the normal operation of Chinese e-mail services and safeguard Internet security, the MPS said.

International pressure has also played a role. In Sept. 2003, the ISC published a list of 127 servers in China and other countries that were being used to distribute spam. The group called on Chinese ISPs and others to block access to these servers in an effort to stop the inflow of spam. Among the reasons cited by the group for this measure was a desire to restore and maintain normal network connections with ISPs in other countries that had shut off e-mail access to Chinese servers identified as sources of spam.

“The Internet Society of China wants to try our best to restore normal e-mail communications with the outside world for domestic Internet users,” it said in a statement.

Expanding on these efforts, the MPS will require e-mail providers to adopt anti-spam technology and plans to pursue criminal investigations of spammers, it said.

MPS and others have a lot of work ahead of them if their anti-spam efforts are to show results. The rapid expansion of the Internet in China has left many Chinese servers open as spam relays, causing entire network domains — including servers run by large telecommunications operators like China Telecom Corp. and China Netcom Communications Group Corp. — to be blacklisted overseas as spam relays, according to Glyn Truscott, a consultant at market analyst BDA China Co. Ltd. in Beijing.

“The network engineers are playing a game of catch-up,” Truscott said, noting that many Chinese network engineers have not taken precautions to guard against their servers being used to send spam.

Whether the Chinese police can help get this problem under control remains to be seen.

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