By Justin Hall, Thu Apr 17 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Spam threatens mobile messaging worldwide, legislators take aim.

Internet-connected mobile devices create an environment where anyone can reach out and touch you. While these first few years of mobile living have been like sweet caresses from loved ones, the coming years could bring a series of continuous hard pokes from complete strangers.
Hook half the globe up to mobile mail they can read anywhere and you have the world's largest, most immediate market. Billions of consumers are forced to acknowledge any commercial summons the moment it arrives, wherever they are, whatever they're doing. Already, small businesses and some direct marketing firms have begun to send unsolicited commercial electronic email into the world's purses and pockets.
Lawmakers worldwide are vying to emerge as spam-vanquishing heroes. But the problem refuses to be easily solved, due to marketing industry concerns, technological ambiguities and it's just too damned easy to send.

Thin targets

Americans are the world's mobile messaging under-achievers. Americans still prefer to keep their fingers on the steering wheels of their giant cars, it seems, instead of thumbing up pithy messages for friends. This has made Americans a thin target thus far for mobile marketers.
Still there have been some folks eager to be the mobile equivalent of Cantor & Seigel, pioneering spam for a new medium. Instead, one company ended up pioneering effective spam-stopping lawsuits. Last year, Acacia National Mortgage, based in Phoenix, ran afoul of America's largest mobile phone service provider Verizon when they sent thousands of SMS messages to Verizon subscribers, on a near-daily basis. Fortunately some of these subscribers were in Colorado, a state with laws strictly detailing terms for commercial email. In particular, this law specifies that mass-marketing emails must have a valid, working means by which subscribers can remove themselves.
But in spite of calls from Verizon, the mails from Acacia did not let up. Verizon filed a lawsuit and Acacia quickly settled, promising to cease the spam - a promising victory. But at least 20 of the United States that have unsolicited commercial email laws, and it doesn't seemed to have stopped the relentless tide of Internet spam.
Perhaps if the United States establishes strong national anti-spam laws for wireless messaging before the medium takes off, they can keep a tighter leash on rabid direct mailers. That's the logic behind legislation proposed by New Jersey congressman Rush Holt. The language is bold and straightforward: "to protect the privacy of wireless telephone subscribers, transmission of unsolicited commercial messages on wireless telephone text, graphic, and image messaging systems should be prohibited." Proposed in January, "HR113" is still working its way through congressional committees.
These efforts to limit unsolicited commercial email on one type of device beg interpretation. If I connect my mobile phone to my computer, does that make the incoming email mobile mail? What if someone spams an email account that I read through a web browser on my mobile phone?
Holt's intention is the same as Verizon's, to protect the medium of mobile messaging for American consumers who haven't yet tried it. They hope to keep unsolicited commercial mail from being the first mobile phone messages American subscribers receive.


Unsolicited commercial SMS messages have provoked spam legislation from the European Union, but the two EU lawmaking bodies have been decidedly split. The European Council of Ministers has determined that unsolicited commercial email, both to mobile devices and Internet-connected PCs, should be banned, while the European Parliament has voted down a ban on spam.
Both acknowledge that all commercial electronic mails should have opt-out capabilities, that is, consumers should be able to remove themselves from commercial email lists. The critical question remains whether consumers can be added to those lists without their permission.
The original legislation before the European commission proposed that all commercial email must be "opt-in," essentially a ban on unsolicited commercial email. Now it seems the EU is prepared to leave "opt-in" versus "opt-out" up to individual member states. The mobile spam provision in question is part of a larger electronic privacy law that must be ratified by all member states so it should be some time before any consumer email protection could become law across Europe.

Meiwaku mail

The shadow side of Japan's vaunted consumer-friendly mobile phones is intense, relentless, and consumer alienating spam. Ensuring open gateways between desktop computers and different mobile phone provider networks has made Japanese mobile phones a spammer's playground.
Mobile phones in Japan have incredible music synthesizers built into them. Your phone doesn't just briefly chirp the arrival of new mail but it might play three verses and two choruses from TLC's "No Scrubs" to let you know one of your friends is awake, probably drinking, and probably just wrote to ask if you were already asleep. With most young folks, turning off your phone means leaving the social network, an unconscionable act. So the phone stays on all night long and short mails are full symphonic wake-up calls.
Still, even if your friends know when you go to sleep, it's likely that you'll still get email after bedtime. DoCoMo subscribers can receive over 10 or 20 unsolicited commercial email messages a day. For a PC user who is inundated regular Internet spam, that may not sound like much. But when each spam rings in your pocket, potentially during a business meeting, intimate dinner or a funeral, it can quickly push people to ignore mobile Internet services. Japanese folks call this "meiwaku mail" (or "annoyance mail"). Messages might contain offers for Viagra and various strains of herbal ecstasy, or more frequently, invitations to dating clubs. DoCoMo regulations prevent official i-mode sites from introducing strangers online. But anyone can set up a site outside of the official DoCoMo i-mode network; all they have to do is lure in customers. Thousands of fly-by-night operators have set up dating clubs, sites where men are promised the chance to meet young ladies excited to talk. To help keep up the conversation, men must pay to get in, but ladies get in free.
Of the roughly 950 million mails passing through DoCoMo's networks each day, a staggering 85% of those messages are sent to addresses that don't resolve. Nearly all of these bounced mails are from computers randomly emailing DoCoMo subscribers to see what addresses will work.
This is easier in Japanese than in English; Daniel Scuka did the math in his "Wireless Watch" newsletter: "Keep in mind that the Japanese syllabary is different than English. To generate an address like, my computer would have to create 26x26x26x26x26x26 = 308 million names (and then filter out the invalid combinations). To generate an address like, I'd have to create fewer than 175,616 combinations." 175,000 is not a challenging number for a modern desktop computer. And since DoCoMo is the only one of the leading carriers to host all of their addresses at a single domain ( their users and their network are especially hard hit by relentless computer-enabled spammers.
Why bother? Because having a computer send repeated messages is cheap. It only takes a few paid visits from lonely businessmen to earn a return on the costs to set up such a business. But meanwhile these active spammers are threatening to tarnish the great shining success of DoCoMo. DoCoMo has already granted customers 400 free packets of incoming mail per month, and last year they pledged to spend an additional $8.7 million fighting mobile Internet spam on their networks.

No ring tone nocry

Meanwhile the Japanese Diet has developed a legislative shift similar to that of the Europeans. Last month the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced legislation to limit only certain types of commercial solicitations, and they're backed by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo is siding with a group of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members intent on banning a wider range of unsolicited commercial email. A resolution should take some months at least.
There have been technical solutions proposed - changing email addresses to include letters and numbers, changing domains, filtering with the address book, filtering at the server. Young users might have the patience to try new spam-filtering methods, but many of the Japanese people I know over the age of 30 haven't figured out how to change their phone mail addresses to avoid phone spam and they are real tired of it.
I asked one woman the other day; "Did you get my mail?" "No, sorry, I don't read mail, I just delete it." These ladies don't bother with short mail - they don't want to incur the charges for downloading the loads of spam. Friendly mail is deleted along with commercial solicitation, so these folks aren't generating packets. Some pundits covering the mobile phone industry in Japan think that DoCoMo will eventually be forced to make mobile email free so people won't be charged for unsolicited email.
Either way, DoCoMo is busy looking for solutions. Meanwhile, many customers are looking elsewhere for their communication needs, and missing out on the fun of 21st century short messaging.

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Justin Hall is a freelance journalist covering culture and technology, living between Capsule Hotels and Love Hotels in Tokyo. His work appears on the web at