Of the 79 messages in my office in-box this morning, 51 were junk mail. So my first few minutes at work were spent deleting spam and adjusting my mail filters. Some people still dismiss spam as a trivial issue. But the problem has become a multibillion-dollar global crisis. The past month has been a good one for the struggle against spam. In the space of a fortnight, the US Federal Trade Commission has promised to lobby for laws on spam, the British government has announced plans for a ban, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have begun collaborating on solutions and the United States Internet service provider EarthLink has been awarded damages of US$16.4 million against a New York-based spammer. Motohiro Tsuchiya, a communications professor at the International University of Japan, told the US Federal Trade Commission recently that 80 per cent of spam arriving in Japan comes from overseas. 'We are actually learning what American culture is through spam,' he said. It's no joke. While I do get a daily dose from around the world, the chief rogues behind the spam plague are still Americans targeting Americans with aphrodisiacs, cheap loans and miracle diets that claim you can watch unscrambled TV, eat pizza and lose weight at the same time. US lawmakers are beginning to take the issue seriously, and with good reason. Ferris Research says spam will cost US businesses more than US$10 billion this year. America Online and Microsoft each say their mail filters block more than two billion spam messages a day, while IDC suggests the global total is more 7.3 billion. 'E-mail is the killer app of the Internet, and spam is killing the killer app,' said Orson Swindle, the splendidly named FTC commissioner. Thirty US states have laws against spam, though most have been a failure. Now Washington is to consider outlawing it nationally. Among the options being proposed are a national opt-out list and a ban on the use of fake e-mail addresses - solutions that have failed on a local basis. Of course, in Hong Kong nobody is doing anything. The government's response to the problem has been pathetic. As with a thousand other problems that it would rather not worry about, the Hong Kong government promotes industry self-regulation, also known as doing nothing. The government likes to point out that, under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, 'the sender should provide the recipient with an 'opt-out' choice of not receiving further marketing e-mails'. Opt-out lists have been widely discredited as worse than useless. If you cannot trust the person sending you the mail, why should you trust them to honour your opt-out request? Even the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) admits that opt-out lists are counterproductive. 'Unless you are confident that the spam organisation is trustworthy, do not accept their offer to remove your e-mail address from their spam list and send them a request for such removal. Most likely, such a request is either ignored or, worse, ends up as a confirmation that your e-mail address is valid, and subject it to promotion to a premier spam list,' Ofta says. Hong Kong's anti-spam resistance has been left in the hands of Ofta and the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association. The association's policies are almost as feeble as the government's. Members caught breaking its anti-spam pledge lose the right 'to advertise compliance under the HKISPA Anti-SPAM Initiative'. Now that would be scary. The government still believes that spam in Hong Kong is not a problem. However, the international anti-spam body The Spamhaus Project lists one local spammer among its top abusers. But it is China that has become the new frontier as the world's spammers move into a country that makes no effort whatsoever to control e-mail abuses. Mainland Internet service providers (ISPs) have become notorious for their refusal to confront the issue, and many of the largest names in the industry, from Netease to China Netcom, regularly host spam businesses. Most anti-spam groups say the solution lies in laws that enable the public and companies to sue spammers. Proposed European Union legislation will demand opt-in rather than opt-out lists. An opt-in list is anathema to spammers, but it is an option that will only work when the lawsuits begin bankrupting spammers. In China, the solution is less easy. We cannot expect mainland service providers to maintain opt-in lists when most of them cannot even maintain a mail server. What we should ask is that the government consider the effect this is having on China's reputation. When ISPs overseas block entire address ranges in the mainland, as many have done, e-mail ceases to function. But when 99 per cent of the mail from Sina or 163.net accounts is junk, blocking that domain is the logical solution. The last thing China needs is a reputation as a refuge for American scam artists. But unless it legislates to control irresponsible ISPs, it's a reputation that could irreparably harm the country's Internet industry.