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The spam flood continues, despite new law

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Canada's new rules -- touted as among the toughest in the world -- will have little impact on the steady flow of crap that flows electronically into our lives.

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Canada's new rules -- touted as among the toughest in the world -- will have little impact on the steady flow of crap that flows electronically into our lives.

Great news! Today I learned I have won the INTERNATIONAL SPECIAL RAFFLE and am entitled to a payout of 17 million euros ... so long as I provide some personal details.

I also received a rare business opportunity to help a nice Egyptian gentleman free up $12.5 million that he put in a European securities firm while serving as chief security officer to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

And a United Nations organization has informed me that $10 million has been released from the Federal Republic of Nigeria and will be deposited to my VISA card ... so long as I provide some personal details.

Much as these offers are tempting, I have a strong suspicion that they are scams, filling my email inbox with unwanted spam.

Today, in other words, was pretty much the same as every other day for the past several years, even though we are now living under the umbrella of Canada's new anti-spam law, which is supposed to stop unwanted commercial electronic messages from getting through to my email.

Unfortunately, that's not happening.

The sad fact is that Canada's new rules -- touted as among the toughest in the world -- will have little impact on the steady flow of crap that flows electronically into our lives, ranging from the merely annoying to the outright illegal.

The main effect will be to impose new obligations and costs on Canadian companies that were, generally, already policing themselves and using responsible practices for communicating with current and prospective customers. And Canadian taxpayers will have to foot the bill for enforcing it all.

Most of the spam stream -- 95 per cent by some estimates -- originates outside Canada. While the Canadian law can be applied to anything entering a Canadian destination electronically, it's next to impossible to enforce outside the country.

Try finding any person or business responsible for sending notices about an international lottery scam. Then try laying a charge or extraditing someone from a country that has no similar legislation. It's highly unlikely to happen.

Even quite legitimate non-Canadian enterprises are continuing to send commercial offers unbothered by the new rules. Right above my Nigerian offer was one from PBS to buy the latest season of Endeavour, the smashing prequel to the Inspector Morse series.

PBS has never sought my consent to send me commercial electronic messages. And that is what firms must now do. Such consent is required for any commercial message sent by any means of telecommunication, including a text, sound, voice or image message. A commercial message is one that involves offers pertaining to the sale of goods or services.

Canadian firms rushed to send out requests for consent prior to July 1 when the law came into effect. I received dozens -- the vast majority from organizations that don't send commercial messages, but are terrified at the scope of the anti-spam law and the substantial penalties of up to $10 million. The concern is understandable -- it's even illegal now to send a message asking for consent.

Most of this was not necessary. I was willingly getting messages from virtually all of the groups that contacted me. They all allowed me to unsubscribe at any time. I wasn't bothered by what was sent to me by these legitimate organizations.

They include non-profit groups that merely send updates and press releases -- like the Winnipeg Humane Society -- even though such groups are supposedly exempt. Interestingly, I receive almost daily press releases from the Prime Minister's Office, and have never received a request for consent from the PMO. So that should take a bit of the pressure off some organizations.

At the Winnipeg Free Press, we are also being ultra cautious to comply with the new law.

We have always followed responsible rules for electronic communications, contacting only people with whom we have a relationship and ensuring anyone who does not want to be contacted again is taken off our list.

The anti-spam law does not cover commercial messages sent to anyone who has an ongoing subscription, membership, account, loan or similar relationship and this covers most of the people we contact.

But we are going further and, prior to July 1, we contacted anyone whose email we have on file to determine if they consent to receive electronic messages from us.

We will, as required, keep a record of all contacts regarding consent, and follow all other rules under the anti-spam law. We are a responsible company and we comply with the law.

But that won't change the fact that the new law is like every other attempt to control the Internet -- akin to trying to use a rowboat to paddle up and over Niagara Falls.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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