Derek Wyatt, and blocking spam

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I read this article on the register, and felt compelled to contact Mr Wyatt in the hope of setting him straight on just how unworkable his proposal is. While I have no doubt Mr Wyatt has the best of intentions (and I really do wish it was as easy as he seems to think to regulate spam), he clearly has little idea of how email is handled.

The emails below are unedited.

The Emails

I initially wrote the following to Mr Wyatt:

Dear Mr Wyatt,
I'm am writing to express my concern over the proposal you made regarding spam, as reported in the guardian (,7496,778239,00.html).

You suggest that ISPs should be held accountable for content carried over their networks, and you liken this to the regulations under which television broadcasters are held.

I believe a better analogy is holding the postal service responsible for junk mail, or the phone company responsible for telemarketers - the television networks have direct control over their content. "Common Carriers", such as ISPs and the post office do not.

I'm torn between agreeing with you, because I too find spam email a nuisance, and recieve vast quantities of spam (around 100 a week, last time I bothered counting), and disagreeing because I know how unworkable your current proposal is.

I work for the systems department for a university library, looking after among other things, email for about 80 staff members. Spam is a problem, and we're always looking into ways of cutting it down, unfortunately most of these are far from ideal. While there are certain spam filters available ( is one that we're looking at making use of for staff who request it) which can help, they're far from infallible, and take a significant amount of computing resources to use effectively, even on a small scale such as ours. For a large ISP, it would be an extreme drain on resources.

The other issue is who takes responsibility for making sure such messages are correctly filtered. The way we're using spamassassin is to add a header to the email, suggesting that we think it's spam - it's up to the individual user if they want their email client to filter on this, so it's up to them what happens to emails marked as 'spam' - at no point do we actually filter any mail.

Shifting such responsibility, as mentioned under your proposal to the ISP not only creates a huge drain on human resources (automated spam detection is far from perfect, and would almost certainly require human intervention), but introduces significant privacy concerns, as all messages would have to be confirmed by ISP personnel.

The final point is a personal one. I feel that email filtering, should I want it, is down to me. That way I know it's my fault if messages don't get through. If my ISP is forced to deal with this, I would never know if emails are being accidentally counted as spam and not getting through. I don't consider this a worthwhile risk.

While the user in me agrees with you, that ISPs should make an effort to help, the systems administrator in me knows that in in practise, your proposed amendment to the communications bill is impossible to adhere to for any ISP.

Forcing them is not the answer.

Ben Charlton

Mr Wyatt replies:

but the difference is that isps are also de facto publishers

I respond:

Many thanks for your prompt response, however, I'm not convinced. With the exception of people like AOL who produce their own carefully vetted content, most ISPs don't generate any content themselves - they're simply relaying information requested by/sent to the user, much like a telephone company.

Making them responsible for the content they carry would be like making BT responsible for someone phoning up and swearing at you. They can assist in tracking down who did it, and will when asked, but they're not the people responsible for the phonecall.


Finally, Derek Wyatt has this to say:

aol can't stop porn reaching children despite their public protestations we have that evidence; google, yahoo excite have so much porn why?

ISPs should be licenced and we should examine the feasibitlity of search engines as well it is not acceptable in a civilised world for children to receive so much porn and as an adult I loathe it too

doing nothing is not in my book as option