Who, while trawling though their inbox, has not gnashed their teeth and cursed the people who so persistently send out all those annoying ads? Hope now glimmers on the horizon that their numbers will dwindle. The key players in Russia's Internet domain are urging the government to introduce severe punishment for spammers.
The Cybercrime Commission under the Russian Association of E-Communications (a non-profit organization bringing together Russia's leading Internet resources, including RIA Novosti) is drafting a series of amendments to existing legislation, spelling out punishment for recalcitrant spammers: up to and including jail terms.
In Russia, spam (the term was coined in 1936 as an acronym for SPiced hAM and came to symbolize nuisance advertising) was officially banned a long time ago. For example, advertising law prohibits the sending of all unsolicited mail, including via the Internet, unless the addressee has given his express prior consent.
In effect, this is a declaration of intent. "An advertising mailer shall immediately cease sending advertising to the address of the person that has applied with such a request," runs Clause 1 of Article 18. This sounds more like one of those "No swimming" signs on a city beach that is widely ignored by holidaymakers.
Under the law there is no legally formulated definition of "spam." There is also a lack of any service to monitor Internet offenders day by day.
Back when the worldwide web was something of a novelty for Russia, no one paid much attention to these yawning gaps. Now that more than 40 million people use the Russian domain each day, the problem is desperately in need of a solution.
Russia leads the world
RAEC analysts say that unsolicited mail accounts for 20% of Internet advertising in Russia. The country is second in the world, just behind the United States, in terms of the volume of spam. The Kaspersky Laboratory even believes Russia has already overtaken the U.S. as a spam-mailing country.
It is something of a paradox: despite not having either income levels or numbers of computers per head comparable with those in the U.S., there is virtually no corner of the world left untouched by Russian spam.
Experts say this has nothing to do with computers. According to Anton Nosik, one of the men behind Russia's Internet domain, "while in the U.S. a spammer may get nine years in jail and pay millions in fines, in Russia it takes years for you to get noticed, and that difference in computer numbers is irrelevant."
It is different overseas. In 2009, Facebook, a social networking site, won $711 million in damages in a lawsuit against spammer Sanford Wallace.
Lock 'em up or fine them?
The RAEC's current initiative is a continuation of the remarks Dmitry Medvedev made during his recent visit to Silicon Valley. The president emphasized Russia's commitment to combating shadow business carried out on the Internet.
This cannot but be welcomed - things are beginning to move. It is also easy to anticipate the response this will elicit from Internet users. In future, on finding an unwanted email in their inbox, having lodged a formal complaint with the relevant authorities, they may, with a clear conscience and sense of duty done, imagine the offender being taken away to a remote spot to do some hard labor.
This is no idle fantasy. A criminal case has recently been opened against Igor Gusev, considered to be the world's leading spammer. But the hitch is that he cannot be officially charged with spamming. There is no such article in the law. The charges made concern unlawful business activity generating a particularly large income.
However, those backing the amendments do not insist on criminal prosecution. They want to see crippling fines imposed. They plan to bring Internet users who terrorize other peoples' inboxes to their knees.
Deeds - not words - are needed
But the struggle against spam is too complicated for Draconian measures alone to beat Internet trash. Especially since these terms remain to be defined.
To begin with, what counts as unlawful mailing? Suppose you wanted to share a link to one of your favorite stories or sites with a friend. What if they consider it spam? Does that mean the full weight of the law will come crashing down on you?
And what about when the spammer concerned is in another country? Should they be put on an international wanted list? That would be like using a slingshot to kill an elephant. No one will bother to hand the individual over to the authorities. By the logic of things, different governments must first agree on what punishment is to be meted out, on the suggestion of another country.
Questions abound. For the time being, refusal to accept services advertised in spam appears to be the most effective way to cope with Internet mailings.
As I was finishing this article, a message appeared in my inbox: "Super exclusive information. In stock now. Small circulation. Order at once." "It must be WikiLeaks," I thought, as I hit 'delete.'
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.