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Spamless in Singapore? A Multi-Pronged Strategy Against Spam

Mr Leong Keng Thai, Deputy Chief Executive & Director-General (Telecoms) Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore Keynote Address - Anti-Spam Forum at Ballroom 3 of the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre

Mr Leong Keng Thai, Deputy Chief Executive & Director-General (Telecoms)
Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore
Keynote Address - Anti-Spam Forum at Ballroom 3 of the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre
Singapore, 22 Jun 2004

Good Morning
Mr. Saw Ken Wye, Chairman of SiTF,
Ladies and Gentlemen.


1. I am pleased to be here this morning to speak to you on measures against spam. Not the canned luncheon meat, but the flood of unsolicited commercial e-mails that clog up our inboxes daily. It is encouraging to see many of you here today. It underlines the importance of the issue and its relevance to each and every one of us in this information age.

2. When you check your e-mail sometime today, you are going to find spam. Quite possibly a lot of it. Spam is like one piece of litter. It does not ruin the countryside on its own, but once everybody litters, the land is ruined and the cost for cleanup is high.

3. In just a few years, spam has grown from a minor annoyance to a significant global economic and social problem. According to industry estimates, over 60% of global e-mail traffic today is now spam, up from 8% in mid-2001. Many feel that spamming is rude, intrusive and lacking in e-mail etiquette. But spam is also a drain on the global economy-it has been estimated that spam could be costing more than US$20 billion in wasted technical resources1.

4. Singapore has not been spared from the global scourge. According to IDA's survey on unsolicited e-mails in 2003, spam accounts for one out of every 3 e-mails received in Singapore. E-mail spam is also causing end-users more than S$20 million in lost productivity each year.These excludes loss from businesses, example ISPs. And it is a clog on commerce not only because we have to spend time deleting junk e-mail. As one CEO has testified in an e-mail to IDA, it is also a problem when wanted messages fail to get through because storage quotas are eaten up by spam.

5. As a society, we cannot ignore the threat posed by spam especially as individuals and businesses shift to e-mail as their core medium of communication. Left unchecked, spam may erode consumer confidence in e-mail as a medium of communication and commerce. It could even jeopardise the performance of our information networks & our national IT business infrastructure.

Challenges Posed by Spam

6. However, spam is a complex & multi-faceted issue. Spammers are continually developing new techniques to defeat anti-spam filters - spammers frequently do quality checks on their spam by first testing the messages against commercial-grade anti-spam filters! Spammers hide behind the anonymity of the Internet and operate across borders to evade law enforcement. In fact, almost 80% of the e-mail spam received in Singapore comes from overseas-based sources.

7. Given the international dimensions of the spam problem, it is clear that individual countries cannot solve the problem alone. Singapore is no exception. But while the challenges are formidable, the war is not lost. And while a global effort is needed to defeat spam, that does not mean that Singapore does nothing in the meantime. To solve the global spam problem, every country must clean up its own backyard.

Singapore's Multi-Pronged Approach to Address Spam

8. In the past months, IDA has worked closely with key stakeholders to develop an appropriate set of measures to curb e-mail spam in Singapore. They include:

  • Attorney-General's Chambers of Singapore, in the review of Singapores legislative options against spam;
  • The three major local Internet Service Providers Pacific Internet, SingNet and StarHub. Together, the three major local ISPs serve almost the entire consumer market in Singapore;
  • The Consumer Association of Singapore and the Singapore Business Federation, representing the interests of local consumers and businesses respectively;
  • The Direct Marketing Association of Singapore, representing the local direct marketing industry; and
  • The Singapore infocomm Technology Federation, representing the infocomm industry and the anti-spam solution providers.

9. We believe that a multi-pronged approach involving public education, technical measures, industry self-regulation, appropriate legislation and international co-operation is the best way of tackling spam in Singapore. Let me explain each prong in turn.

Public Education & Technical Measures

10. First, public education, which includes the use of technical measures against spam. There are steps that each of us can take to minimise the amount of spam we receive. For example, we can install anti-spam filters, which can significantly reduce the amount of spam that reaches our inboxes. I recalled the first time I installed such a software and I was impressed by its effectiveness. Using a spam filter has since helped me reduce the volume of e-mails coming into my inbox and I can now focus my attention on e-mails that I expect to receive. The anti-spam features are quite powerful and although some spam e-mails do get through, it has been reduced significantly.

11. As most spam comes from overseas, beyond the reach of our laws, public education on measures that the end user can take must continue to be our first line of defence against e-mail spam. To this end, IDA together with CASE, DMAS, SBF, SITF and the 3 major ISPs have been stepping up our public education efforts. Through these joint efforts, an anti-spam website, the "Singapore Anti-Spam Resource Centre" has been developed to equip the public with the necessary knowledge and tools to fight spam. We are jointly committed to raise public awareness on anti-spam measures.

12. IDA will integrate anti-spam into our existing Infocomm educational programmes and step up our outreach efforts. For example, it will be one of the themes at IDA's pavilion at COMEX in August. We have already incorporated anti-spam into the curriculum of the National IT Literacy Programme.

13. CASE, DMAS and SBF will also lend their support by educating the public and businesses on anti-spam measures through workshops and electronic newsletters. SITF has already launched a free trial to educate e-mail users on the plethora of anti-spam software available, which I heard has been receiving good responses from both the public and business community. Today's forum also serves as a good public education platform that will allow for a better understanding of the impact of spam on each and everyone of us.

Industry Self-Regulation

14. Secondly, there is industry self-regulation. Self-regulation can make a big difference in the amount of spam that we receive. It also makes good business sense. This is because ISPs and legitimate marketers, like the rest of us, are victims of spam too.

15. For ISPs, spam strains servers, causes delays in the delivery of legitimate e-mail and generates thousands of customer complaints each month.For legitimate marketers, spam devalues the use of e-mail as a marketing channel imagine poor Pfizer trying to market its best-known product - Viagra, through e-mail today!

16. I am happy to report that the industry is chipping in to fight spam. The three major local ISPs Pacific Internet, SingNet and StarHub have implemented a set of anti-spam guidelines. The effort may eventually be expanded to include other ISPs. These measures will improve the end user e-mail experience. As our ISPs are at the frontlines in the fight against spam, the concerted effort is a major step forward for Singapore in the fight against spam.

17. Meanwhile, the Direct Marketing Association of Singapore has issued a code of practice to guide marketers on the appropriate use of e-mail for advertising purposes. The code is mandatory for its members. DMAS is also setting up a Consumer Communications Preference Programme, to allow e-mail users to register their preference not to receive unsolicited commercial e-mail. These initiatives represent the efforts of the e-marketing community to safeguard e-mail as a communication channel.

Anti-Spam Legislation

18. Most of you would be aware that the government has proposed to enact an anti-spam law. Less well-known is the fact that many of the activities associated with the more serious forms of spamming are already illegal in Singapore. For example it is a criminal offence to engage in e-mail fraud or to cause a "denial of service" through spamming. Where appropriate, we will use our existing laws against such spammers.

19. On the other hand, other forms of irresponsible spamming are currently not illegal. Therefore, the government will enact a spam control law to close this gap. This will ensure that Singapore does not become a safe haven for spammers.

20. The proposed law seeks to balance the legitimate interests of businesses seeking to advertise via e-mails and the interest of e-mail users not to be deluged by unwanted e-mail solicitations. It will level the playing field for all of us that use e-mail responsibly. It will clarify the rules for local marketers and deter local spammers. And it will give ISPs who are the main victims of spam and in the best position to enforce the law a right of legal recourse against spammers.

21. As spam affects many stakeholders, IDA and AGC are conducting a joint public consultation on the proposed law. The consultation paper is accessible from both the IDA website and the anti-spam website. The proposed legislative framework will also be a key discussion theme at today's forum and we welcome your feedback to the proposed law.

International Efforts to Curb Spam

22. Spam is a global problem. It will therefore take a global effort to eradicate the problem. In view that a lasting solution will necessarily involve the entire international community, Singapore will do its part by participating in various global and regional anti-spam initiatives. Such fora will include APEC, ASEAN, ITU and OECD.

23. On this front, IDA is already a member of the US Federal Trade Commission-led anti-spam campaign, "Operation Secure Your Server". Supported by 37 agencies from 26 countries, the international effort aims to reduce the flow of unsolicited e-mail by closing unsecured servers or "open relays". Spammers often abuse such servers to flood the Internet with unwanted e-mail. As part of this initiative, advisories were sent to urge owners and operators of "open relays" to protect themselves from becoming unwitting sources of spam.


24. As of today, there is no silver bullet for spam. Every measure implemented in the past has been circumvented by spammers. On their own, technical measures, legislation and industry self-regulation cannot eliminate spam.

25. But a combination of measures may make a difference, and there have been some successes in the ongoing spam wars. For example, America On-Line (AOL), the largest ISP in the US saw a 27% decline in the amount of spam entering its network in the period between mid-Feb and mid-Mar 2004. AOL attributed the decline to improved filtering techniques and fear of litigation under the new US federal anti-spam law, the CAN-SPAM Act.

26. It will be an uphill task. But governments are waking up to the issue. And some of the world's brightest minds are looking at the problem. I am told that Microsoft alone has a team of over 50 engineers including a few PhDs dedicated to anti-spam research. There is exciting work going on in the area of authentication that may remove the veil of anonymity that spammers have been able to hide behind. So we may yet turn the tide in the war against spam. I believe that a multi-pronged approach is the right way forward, and that it will go some way to tackling the spam problem in Singapore.

27. Just like the Internet, the mobile phone has become an indispensable communications tool in our daily lives. With falling telecom prices & 3G around the corner, text and multimedia messaging can only grow in popularity. But as e-mail is to the Internet, SMS/MMS is to the mobile phone. There is a risk that unscrupulous spammers may flood users with unwanted marketing messages and jeopardise the mobile communications channel. While mobile spam is not yet as pressing an issue compared to e-mail spam, IDA is reviewing possible measures against mobile spam to guard against such a possibility.

28. It is timely that SiTF host this forum today to discuss anti-spam. It is only with close collaboration and partnership amongst the industry, user communities and government that this complex issue of spam can be more effectively addressed.

29. On this note, I wish all of you a fruitful and productive forum. Thank you.


1UNCTAD-E-Commerce and Development Report 2003 (United Nations Conference on Trade & Development)