Tough penalties needed to give anti-spam law teeth, papers say

Tough and enforceable penalties are seen as crucial to any effort to block the deluge of unwanted mobile phone messages

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 3:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 3:42am

An estimated 200 billion unwanted messages were sent to mobile phones on the mainland in the first half of last year. According to computer security company Kaspersky Lab, China accounts for 22 per cent of all electronic spam sent globally.

A draft amendment of the mainland's advertisement law that would ban electronic spamming was therefore warmly welcomed this past week. Doubts remain, however, about how effective legislative changes would be given the difficulties that would inevitably arise in enforcing the law.

According to the amendment, released to solicit public opinion a week ago, the sending of advertisements by any organisation or individual through e-mail or text message "when the receiver has not agreed or made a request, or when the receiver has clearly refused", would be prohibited.

Media outlets said that without rules outlining strict and workable punishments, the law would lack teeth. Some added that there had been much crying but very little done in recent years to combat the problem.

The amendment says those who breach the law should be punished according to related regulations on the telecommunications industry. The Beijing News said this in effect downgraded the law to an industrial-relations issue. It warned that watchdogs for the telecoms sector did not have the staff to implement punishments in spamming cases.

"It is necessary that the advertisement law gives those bothered by spam the right to directly sue the advertisers," the newspaper said. It suggested setting a minimum amount for compensation, or introducing punitive damages to deter advertisers.

The existing regulations, issued by the former Information Industry Ministry in 2006, only target spam e-mails. There are no specific regulations on text messages and telephone advertising.

The Beijing Times also said the key to cracking down on spam lay in having mechanisms to establish legal liability.

"China has a limited number of telecoms operators, and it should have been easier to manage. But because of the weakness in the area of legal liability, some operators not only failed to perform their duties in curbing spam, they voluntarily became accomplices to immoral advertisers," it said.

State television revealed in 2012 that many branches of China Telecom, one of the three state-run mobile-phone operators on the mainland, gave the green light to some advertisers in exchange for payment. This came four years after the company signed an self-enforced anti-spam pact with the other two state operators, China Unicom and China Mobile.

Last year, more than 97 billion spam text messages were blocked by one mobile-phone security application alone, 360 Mobile Safe, an increase of 36 per cent on the year before, the app's developer Qihoo 360 said last month. Adverts, especially for real estate, made up the bulk of messages it blocked.

The Xinhua Daily Telegraph said two factors were to blame for persistent spam: difficulties investigating alleged cases and inaction by telecommunications operators. "The senders responsible for spam are a complex group, and most spam being sent is done so by professional equipment. Some telecommunications operators have colluded with senders to make big profits."

China News Service said many senders used fake transmission stations based in vehicles, which had made apprehending culprits difficult.

Another difficulty is that the work "needs the co-operation of many departments and even the whole of society", it said, adding that neither telecoms operators nor watchdogs have the ability to catch and punish senders.

The Gmw.cn news portal suggested supervisors in the advertising industry be held responsible if they fail to manage the sector properly.

"As the proverb goes, use heavy penalties in rough times," it said. "With spam messages flourishing, who will view the law as a line not to cross if it fails to deter the public with due punishment?"