Left-Wingers Worry Conservatives Will Benefit from Anti-Spam Law

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Proposed legislation to outlaw "spamming" in Australia has drawn support from groups campaigning against unsolicited junk email, but a leftist party fears exemptions in the law will give an unfair advantage to pro-life groups and "the religious right" to promote their views.

Civil libertarians also have raised concerns about some aspects of the measure, including "entry, search and seizure" powers granted to government inspectors and police.

The government wants to get tough with those who use the Internet to inundate email in-boxes with unsolicited messages promoting anything from pornography to weight-loss programs.

The proposed legislation, expected to take effect next year, will ban software that is used to generate mass email address lists for the purposes of sending spam.

It also empowers a body called the Australian Communications Authority (ACA) to issue injunctions, formal warnings, and apply for warrants to investigate and monitor suspected offenders.

Exemptions in the bill allow political parties, churches and charities to continue to send unsolicited emails.

The bill last month passed the lower House of Representatives - where the governing coalition has the majority -- but is now before the Senate, where the minor Australian Democrats party holds the balance of power.

The Democrats issued a statement Tuesday, complaining that the exemptions give special rights to religious groups and others who will take advantage of this by pushing their agendas.

A party senator made it clear what the Democrats regard as the biggest danger.

"It is outrageous that fundamentalist church groups be allowed to spam the entire country with campaign messages opposing such things as abortion, contraception or homosexual law reform," said Senator Brian Greig.

At the same time, he continued, "family planning organizations, gay and lesbian lobby groups or women's organizations would be prohibited from countering these messages with an alternative view."

The senator cited several examples of what he was worried about. Exempted groups may use mass emailing "to promote creationism and debunk evolution" or to argue that "the adoption of children by same-sex couples is harmful to those children," he argued.

Greig, who is an activist on homosexual issues, said there should be no exemptions if the legislation was going to be effective.

Asked what had prompted Greig's concerns, Democrats spokeswoman Di Graham said Wednesday that "fundamentalist church groups" and others "have been known to send that sort of material out in hard copy, and it's only a matter of time before they transfer to an electronic version.

She could not say, however, whether such groups had actually proposed doing so.

Margaret Tighe, president of Right to Life Australia, sounded taken aback when asked Wednesday whether the organization had any plans to flood Australians' in-boxes with pro-life messages.

"The thought has never occurred to us," she said. "We might email something to politicians, but that's different. No, we've never contemplated this.

Tighe scoffed at the notion that the government would move to give special rights to pro-life campaigners.

"We've never had any form of protection from government and we don't expect any either," she said.

"If they're going to help anybody, they're more likely to help the people whose views Senator Greig espouses, rather than us."

Greig 'plainly wrong'

Communications Minister Daryl Williams, the cabinet minister responsible for the anti-spamming legislation, took issue with Greig's complaints, saying the senator clearly did not understand the government's bill.

The legislation under consideration only applies to commercial email, he said in a response sent to CNSNews.com .

"Commercial spam comprises the bulk of the unwanted and unsolicited electronic mail plaguing email users around the world, as spammers seek to profit from the attention of email users," Williams said. "This nuisance mail is what is targeted by the government's legislation."

There was nothing in the bill to prevent anyone from sending out non-commercial emails.

"Senator Greig's claim that exempted groups could spam Australians with 'campaign' messages, with their opponents unable to respond, is plainly wrong," Williams said.

"The government values free speech and has been careful not to intrude on religious, political or general free speech in this legislation."

He added that the legislation, including the exemptions, would be reviewed two years after the law comes into effect.

Meanwhile, the proposed law has drawn mixed reaction from other quarters.

The official opposition Labor Party wants the exemptions to include trade unions and other non-profit groups.

Williams' response, given in parliament last month, was that, unlike trade unions, religious groups and charities "commonly reach beyond their congregations or membership to deal with broader elements of society" and were thus being exempted.

A civil liberties group called Electronic Frontiers Australia raised several issues, including concern that ACA representatives will be able to carry out "search and seizure" actions.

In a submission to a Senate committee, Electronic Frontiers Australia also complained about the proposed exemptions for religious, political and charitable groups.

"If such bodies wish to promote or advertise their goods and services by electronic messages, they should be required to obtain the recipient's prior consent," it said.

But other groups support the bill, including the Australian Direct Marketing Association, which said in a statement earlier the law would "restore confidence in e-commerce because spam is strangling the Internet and e-mail as a channel for on-line business and marketing."

Also behind the bill is a campaign group called the Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Email, Australia, which said while there was room for improvement and adjustment, the legislation, as drafted, was "suitable for enactment."

Australian e-commerce experts point out that the vast majority of spam received by Australian computer users originates abroad.

Williams has acknowledged that local laws will not solve the problem by themselves.

Canberra is also hoping to sign bilateral and multilateral agreements with other countries to cooperate in combating spam.

Last month, Australia and South Korea signed a memorandum agreeing to share information and intelligence about spam-related activities.

Since South Korea introduced anti-spam laws in 2001, the level of spam there fell from 90 percent of all email traffic to just over 70 percent, according to Williams' ministry.

In the U.S., the Senate last month passed what's known as the CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003), designed to reduce spam by imposing heavy penalties on offenders. Similar legislation must still be passed by the House of Representatives.

According to a poll released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last month, 70 percent of U.S. email users surveyed said spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying.

\sb100\sa100"Our new data from a national survey suggest that spam is beginning to undermine the integrity of email and to degrade the online experience," the project said in a report on its website.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow