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Source: ITBusiness.ca

Posted on March 10, 2005

      Canada's IT industry may be united in its efforts to reduce unsolicited commercial e-mail, but it's struggling to come up with a way to accurately measure how much spam we receive.

      Ipsos-Reid released the results of an ongoing survey Thursday that suggests the first decline in reported spam volumes in the last four years. According to the survey, which Ipsos-Reid conducts online with a sample of approximately 1,000 users and by telephone with about another 1,000 adults, the average weekly number of spam e-mail messages dropped from 68 per cent in 2003 to 49 per cent last year.

      The Vancouver-based research firm attributed the decrease to legislation such as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which requires consent from marketers before sending material, along with an increased use of spam filters, both by Internet users and their ISPs.

      "It represents a turning point," said Ipsos senior vice-president Steve Massop. "It's not even a plateau . . . I would think that it's going to continue to go down. I don't think it's going to disappear but it's certainly going to go down from here."

      Not everyone is convinced. Neil Schwartman, president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), scoffed at the Ipsos report, calling its methods "sloppy science" that do not produce meaningful statistics.

      "With no due respect to Ipsos-Reid, they're blowing smoke," he said. "They conduct telephone surveys . . . are they going to have (respondents) sit there in front of their computer and guestimate, or are they going to actually have them do statistical analysis of their inboxes? You know that they're going to guestimate."

      Last year the federal government, under Industry Canada, established an anti-spam task force to tackle the e-mail problem. Schwartzman, who is one of the members, said early efforts have included reaching out to ISPs to get more insight into the spam volumes they are handling. So far, however, he said there has been little cooperation from ISPs.

      The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) began conducting its own survey of ISPs about spam last September, and the results are expected to be released in approximately one week. CAIP, which is now part of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), is hoping to expand its research into an annual benchmark of spam trends and indicators according to Kevin Wennekes, its research director.

      "Obviously this was our pilot run," said Wennekes, who did not want to discuss the results until they are officially released. "Based on the feedback that we were getting on the results and the way that the survey went, we're going to make some small refinements to it, but our plan is to issue it again on a regular basis."

      Schwartzman said spam research is made more difficult because results are only accurate according to the respondents in a limited time. For example, it's impossible to know how many e-mail messages were sent out each day.

      "I'm all for taking a scientific approach to it, but that's not what we've seen so far," he said. "Mostly it's been spam filtering companies that just want to sell their own products."

      Wennekes admitted CAIP's survey was not completely scientific, but is a work in progress to develop a better way of evaluating the problem.

      "It was a means of taking a snapshot at the time to provide us the groundwork we were going to need to measure this subject," he said.

      Ipsos-Reid says its data is statistically weighted to reflect the population proportions of regular online users by online expertise and by region. The overall results are within a maximum plus or minus 3.1 percentage point of what they would be if the entire population of Canadian Internet users were surveyed. Mossop said the results also encompass both home and corporate users. Respondents said about one-third of their spam was received at work. The results aren't broken out between consumer and office users, however.

      "It's something maybe we'll put in the next survey. We just hadn't thought of differentiating it, but we probably should," he admitted.

      No matter whose numbers you believe, Schwartzman said there is little reason to be sanguine. Many ISPs have tried dealing with spam by blocking Port 25, where many spam messages are routinely sent. In response, many spammers are simply switching to another port, according to Schwartzman.

      "The technical changes that being made by the spammers - we are looking down the barrel of a massive gun," he said. "Things are about to get a lot worse."

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