The government's proposed crackdown on spam phone calls, text messages and junk e-mails is a welcome step for those of us whose already hectic days are being increasingly burdened by the rise in volume of electronic sludge. As much as the effort is to be applauded, though, it will be meaningless without proper policing and flexibility to cope with technological advances. Without careful consideration, the laws that evolve could even be anti-business by restricting the ability to use new advertising mediums. Worse, they could unwittingly restrict free speech. The government pledged on Friday, as a two-month public consultation on the bill began, that such matters had been taken into consideration. To ensure the bill covers future developments, it uses the phrase 'electronic messages', which the government hopes will cater for new inventions and technologies. The Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology, John Tsang Chun-wah, contended that only commercial messages would be targeted and those from political parties, charities, religious groups and individuals excluded. With the legal safeguards against spam already in place in the US, South Korea and elsewhere as a guide, the legislation would put in place fines of up to $100,000 for senders of unsolicited commercial messages. Those found guilty of related activities, such as address harvesting and automatic throwaway accounts could face fines of up to $1 million and five-year prison sentences. Do-not-call registers for faxes, short message service and multimedia message service messages and phones are planned. Firms using mass e-mailing, texting or calling to promote services must give customers the option to unsubscribe and include the company name and contact details in all correspondence. These are forward-looking moves, although they are far from a solution to the problem. The rules only govern Hong Kong and therefore do not deal with the bulk of spam e-mail, which comes from elsewhere. Nor do they deal with non-electronic advertising calls, which are outlawed in some countries if recipients have their names on do-not-call registers. Junk mail through letter boxes is similarly not considered by the bill, even though it wastes just as much time for those who receive it and is environmentally damaging as well. Not only are forests felled to produce brochures and letters many of us throw straight into rubbish bins, but time and money is wasted recycling material that should never have made its way to recyclers in the first place. There is also the question that the laws are overreacting to as-yet uncertain circumstances. Spam e-mail is undoubtedly a big problem - the loss of productivity from sifting through in-boxes was estimated at $6 billion in 2004 - but unwanted mobile phone text messages are, for most of us, a once- or twice-a-day occurrence at best. Concerns were doubtless raised when the first advertising appeared on radio and television, but we did not rush to legislate against it and still have not, no matter how much we may disapprove when it interrupts favourite programmes. Laws banning spam are new and untested and not necessarily a cure-all. Technology must also be applied to find solutions through filtering and other methods to deal with an ever-changing electronic environment. With the cost of policing any new laws unclear, we must ensure that enforcement does not detract from other more important needs of society. Extra funding will be needed to set up an enforcement mechanism and the amount must be commensurate with the level of the problem. Legislation will change the risk-reward equation for spammers, who at the moment profit enormously at little cost and risk to themselves or their businesses. The government is moving in the right direction, but must ensure it does not overreact to one of the most exciting and innovative times in our history.