Japan Takes Anti-Spam Steps

Japan has become the latest wired country to issue laws clamping down on unsolicited commercial email, as momentum continues among other governments to curb spam.

Prompted largely by concerns from NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese mobile telecommunication giant, two bills enacted in mid-April and now in effect establish “opt-out” as the default model for email marketing, and dictate other rules for marketers.

The bills, a new law regulating advertising email and an update to a 25-year-old rule forbidding pyramid schemes, require marketers to honor recipients’ unsubscribe requests from any future mailings.

Additionally, email marketers also would have to specify in each piece of email that it is both an advertisement (“kokoku”) and that it has been sent without permission. Additionally, mailers would have to offer a valid return address and subject line in each piece of mail.

Perhaps most importantly, mailers also are forbidden from sending mail to randomly-generated email addresses — a practice commonly used by spammers to find new recipients.

In the U.S., spammers typically use a variation known as “dictionary spamming” which entails sending email to well-known variants of proper names: for example, a piece of spam received by the chairman of Microsoft might have been sent by a dictionary spammer to the addresses agates@microsoft.com, bgates@microsoft.com and cgates@microsoft.com.

In Japan, where cell phones (based on i-mode) account a far greater percentage of the country’s email accounts than in the U.S., spammers can send mail to specific telephone numbers instead of names. Because so much email, and spam, is sent over its systems to its subscribers’ cell phones, NTT DoCoMo began pushing for legislation on the matter last year (though the bills impact both email delivered to cell phones and PCs).

Marketers who violate the laws face severe penalties, including fines of up to $2.56 million for businesses, and up to two years of jail time for individual mailers.

The measures also require Internet carriers like DoCoMo and rivals like DDI to develop ways to reduce spam.

The other piece of legislation, an update to the 1976 Specific Commercial Transactions Law, came as a compromise between Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. According to reports in the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, the LDP sought significant limitations on all bulk email while the METI had looked to limit the proliferation of email hyping adult services.

The news comes just weeks after the European Union’s Parliament approved similar anti-spam regulations. Like the Japanese bills, it’s unclear whether the EU’s directive — which will be enforced by member states — will significantly impact mailers from other regions, such as North America.

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers continue to debate a number of bills that have been proposed, rewritten and postponed for years. In May, one such bill, known as CAN-SPAM, received approval by a Senate subcommittee, readying it for a full-chamber vote. It is the closest that any U.S. legislative bill on curbing spam has come to being made law.

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