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Australian legislation cooks spammers

Spammers could incur up to $733,000 in penalties per day for sending junk e-mail--and one lawmaker calls on the United States to follow suit with similar legislation.

New antispam legislation introduced into Australia's House of Representatives carries tough financial penalties for sending spam--and one lawmaker has called on the United States to follow suit.

The spam bill would apply to spam that originates in Australia and contains a flexible sanctions regime that includes warnings, infringement notices and court-awarded penalties. Senator Richard Alston, Australia's minister for communications, information technology and the arts, said the legislation is part of a "multilayered" approach and is meant to complement the use of e-mail filtering software.

The bill would allow for fines of up to $733,000 ($1.1 million Australian dollars) per day for sending spam.

Alston acknowledged that the vast majority of spam originates overseas. "The bulk of spam seems to originate in the U.S., and if the U.S. goes down the same path as us by adopting an opt-in model, then I think that will make a very big difference," he said. "But in the meantime, we can only do what's possible within Australia--but, of course, in combination with users helping themselves."

The legislation won the endorsement of Australia's Internet Industry Association (IIA). Peter Coroneos, chief executive of the IIA, said the spam bill incorporates most major elements the industry has pushed for and reflects standards the association has defined for its own members.

"It will position Australia as one of the first countries anywhere to enact national antispam legislation and marks another milestone in the continued battle against spam," Coroneos said.

Spam causes numerous problems for computer users and companies. Beyond the technical and cost challenges of spam, businesses are in danger of being sued by employees over the content of the spam they receive.

Junk e-mail also can contain malicious code, such as viruses and worms, and clogs bandwidth. Analysts estimate that it now accounts for at least half of all e-mail sent. Because many spam messages contain a fake "from" address, through a process called spoofing, businesses that have had their address stolen have found themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of rejected e-mail and complaints, using large amounts of bandwidth that has to be paid for.

The new legislation will be enforced by the Australian Communications Authority, according to Alston. "There's the capacity for them to have infringement notices issued," he said. "They can go to the federal court, if necessary, to take action against serious or repeat offenders, so there will be a series of levels at which these matters can be dealt with.

"But legislation in itself has a very significant deterrent effect, and I think that's the key message that we want to put across at this point...We're not so much interested in prosecuting people as stopping spamming, and if we can stop it by deterring them with serious penalties and an effective enforcement regime, then I think we'll achieve our objective."

The bill specifically states that if a person sends spam by mistake, they won't be subject to the penalties. The legislation also allows for legitimate e-mail marketing, and there will be a 120-day grace period after the legislation gains royal assent for businesses to bring their practices in line with the legislation.

ZDNet Australia's James Pearce reported from Sydney.