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Sparring with Spammers: China Fights Back

A recent nationwide survey of China's spam situation, the largest of its kind in the country, involved more than 100 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. It covered a wide range of topics, such as netizens' attitudes toward junk e-mail, the type of spam they receive and the frequency with which spam arrives. The survey, conducted by the Beijing-based Kingsoft Corp., is expected to help counter the junk e-mails that are running rampant on the Internet and roughshod over its users. The final results of the survey will be made public in late April. 

The unchecked spread of junk mail has been baffling netizens worldwide. While it is difficult to put an accurate figure to the losses to Internet users caused by junk mail each year, some statistics suggest a figure of US$8-10 billion.


Spam significantly increases netizens' Internet and telephone usage fees.


And those are just the quantified losses. Adding in the mental suffering of netizens -- accidental deletion of normal mail and the aggravation of hardware and software damage caused by junk-mail viruses -- all things considered, the harm caused by spam is virtually unimaginable.


China has 68 million Internet surfers who get 46 billion spam mails each year, accounting for 10.4 percent of the world's total. China has become the second-largest spam receiver, following only the United States. In 2003 alone, domestic e-mail servers received a total of 150 billion junk mails, only 60 to 80 percent of which were filtered by the servers.


In November 2002, the Internet Society of China (ISC) set up a coordination group to fight spam. Last year the ISC publicized two groups of spammers' IP addresses, more than 300 in all. Since then, most of the exposed spammers have taken appropriate measures. But all to no avail, it seems that the spam situation continues to deteriorate.


Lacking legal backing, very little can be done to punish known spammers, said Huang Mingsheng, CEO and COO of 263 Network Group, a leading Internet service provider. At the same time, very few domestic e-mail ISPs will invest to develop new anti-spam software.


To make matters worse, some of the free e-mail providers played the trick of the thief crying, "Stop, thief!" as they forwarded junk mail.


The overflow of junk mail has squandered enormous resources. What's more, many countries have begun to regard China as a hotbed for spam and many IP addresses are at risk of being blocked as a result. If things continue this way, China risks becoming an isolated island in cyberspace.


On March 2, 35.com -- originally China Channel, Asia's largest registrar for domain names -- launched in Beijing an intelligent e-mail service that can recognize and filter junk mail, taking the lead in providing new anti-spam technology.


Filtering junk mail by means of keywords does not tackle the spam problem at the root, said Gong Shaohui, director of 35.com and also a member of the ISC's spambusters. "Using the traditional method, some legitimate mail will inevitably be filtered. Leaving aside the fact that spammers change the subject, sender and mail content every day, for most users losing legitimate mail is much worse than merely getting spam."


The new intelligent e-mail box utilizes advanced artificial intelligence simulation technology, achieving a spam recognition rate above 99.8 percent while the rate of error is nearly zero, said Gong.


At the 2004 Symposium on Anti-spam Technology and Overall Management held in Beijing, experts from Kingsoft, Sina.com, 163.com and 263 Network Group unanimously agreed to form an anti-spam technology alliance to crack down jointly on spamming.


Since spammers are becoming more and more cunning at disguising junk mail, it is usually impossible for mail servers to defend against them effectively, said Zhao Jiangbo, a department manager and spamfighting expert from 263 Network.


With currently available technologies, single mail servers are unable to contain spam. An alliance involving mail servers, telecom servers and professional software corporations is essential, said Zhao.


Major mail servers often blacklist recognized spammers. Members of the alliance can share their own blacklists, which should have a deterrent effect on regular spammers, said Pei Yupeng, a senior manager from 163.com.


The Kingsoft is planning to promote a more effective anti-spam engine. A technology alliance would be conducive to further improvement of the engine, which is still in the testing stage, said Liu Haifeng, the company's lead spamfighter.


Both legislation and technology should be pushed ahead simultaneously, stressed Li Yuxiao, head of the ISC secretariat.


Indeed, despite all the appropriate moves made by the mail servers, the lack of related laws and regulations leaves much of the anti-spam action floundering.


In order to contain junk mail, legal support is an inescapable topic, said Yi Xiaoyi, chief of the e-mail technology department at Sina.com. To tackle the problem, technically speaking, mail servers have to block spammers' IP addresses, e-mail accounts or even domains. These measures are simply not feasible without explicit legal prescriptions, Yi said.


Due to a legislative gap in e-mail administration, many foreign spammers have forwarded enormous quantities of junk via Chinese mail servers, said Huang Chengqing, vice secretary-general of the ISC. Consequently, some overseas anti-spam organizations have begun to block China's IP addresses, which has severely damaged the reputation of China's Internet and Chinese netizens.


In February, the ISC publicly appealed to the authorities to speed up anti-spam legislation and establish an anti-spam system in which the government, industries, enterprises and the public can all participate. The ISC has submitted its proposal to higher authorities for review and, hopefully, approval, said Li Yuxiao.


A separate proposal for strengthening anti-spam efforts has been submitted to the Second Session of the Tenth National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for ratification. In April, the State Council will hold a seminar to discuss laws and regulations to enhance Internet safety, and a comprehensive ordinance on Internet and information safety is to be drafted.


Fighting invisible foes


As junk mail threatens to swamp the inboxes of netizens, e-mail service providers and their customers have been dragged into combat with invisible foes.


263 Network's Zhao Jiangbo said that spammers usually adopt two different but both highly effective tactics: saturation bombing and camouflage. Spammers send out hundreds of junk mails every hour using special software, and once recognized and blocked by the servers, the junk mail continues to spread under a new disguise.


Common netizens, with primitive counterattack software, can do little but delete junk mail item by item, said Zhao. ISPs have more powerful technological weapons, but they still face tremendous pressure in dealing with millions of spam messages while attempting to avoid the collateral damage of eliminating friendly mail.


Liu Jinguang of Kingsoft divides junk mail into two types: commercial advertising that is simply annoying, and harmful virus carriers.


Liu said that some virus mails as disguised as elegant greeting cards that damage netizens' hardware and software. Many worm-type viruses make use Internet loopholes to spread junk mails through victims who unwittingly offer up their address lists when they themselves are infected by the virus.


By using batch mail software that is easily downloaded from the Internet, an average ADSL user can send nearly 10,000 spam messages at the press of a button.


Is there any hope of victory? The experts say that the fighting is going to get worse before it gets better.


The direct damage


The Kingsoft experts say junk mail is "wrecking the country and ruining the people," and highlight six forms of direct damage.

  • Jamming e-mail service facilities, reducing network operational efficiency and influencing normal mail service.
  • Perception of China as a breeding ground of junk mail, with the possibility of China being isolated from the rest of the Internet community.
  • Spam seriously disturbs daily life and violates the privacy of Internet users, ultimately costing time, energy and money.
  • In the hands of hackers, junk mail becomes even more harmful. In February 2000, hackers entered and controlled certain broadband websites. By mobilizing numerous servers' broadband capabilities and attacking with hundreds of millions of junk mails, the hackers brought many websites to a standstill.
  • Harming e-mail service providers' images. Netizens receiving junk mails will turn to other service providers if they think the current ones are not improving their junk mail filtering systems.
  • Spam that spreads fallacies to hoodwink the public, cheat people out of money and spread pornography has done serious social harm.

The ISC encourages Internet users to report spam and spammers at its official website, aspam.isc.org.cn. By cataloguing and analyzing complaints, the ISC can blacklist known spammers. The list will be made available to major domestic e-mail service providers who, pursuant to an agreement can block the offenders.


How do you know it's spam?


Definitions of spam have changed with time, but it has basically been identified as follows:

  • In August 2000, China Telecom defined junk mail as advertisements, e-zines or other materials sent to the netizens who had not requested them; e-mail with no definite sender's name or address; any use of the China Telecom network to violate ISP safety and service provisions.
  • In May 2002, the China Education and Scientific Research Computer Network published the Management Regulation for Banning Junk Mail. It defined spam as any advertising, propaganda or virus intruding into an Internet user's e-mail account. Most were sent as batch mail.
  • At the end of 2002, the ISC defined junk mail in the Anti-Spamming Standards of the Internet Society of China: any advertising, e-zines, or various types of propaganda materials received by Internet users who had not requested them; e-mails that could not be rejected; e-mails that concealed senders' identities, addresses and subjects; and e-mails containing false information sources, senders and routes.

(China.org.cn by Li Jingrong and Shao Da, April 13, 2004)

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