Column: S. Korean Spam Argument Doesn’t Hold Up

Some anti-spammers, and not just the wacko zealots, are invoking South Korea’s disastrous experience with unsolicited bulk e-mail as a reason for the United States to enact a federal opt-in anti-spam law instead of the opt-out legislation pending in both houses of Congress.

“[O]pt-out has proven disastrous in South Korea, where the legislature is now scrambling to enact opt-in legislation,” said a May 22 letter to Congress by a group of consumer protection advocates, including the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email.

However, these groups leave out other factors that could be to blame.

Anti-spammers’ contention that a law failing to require prior permission from consumers before sending e-mail turned South Korea into a Spamutopia is supported by a March 7 report in BNA Inc.’s Privacy Law Watch: “Alarmed by increasing public outrage at a continued deluge of spam e-mail in South Korea, the Ministry of Information and Communication is considering a shift to an opt-in standard of regulating online commercial solicitations, officials said.

“The agency has long been criticized for fighting a losing battle against spam-marketing scofflaws with its policy weapons based on opt-out methods, which include a mandatory advertisement e-mail heading and a mandatory unsubscribe button embedded in an e-mail message.”

Several paragraphs down in the same report, however, is the following:

“According to the Korea Information Security Agency (KISA), affiliated with the ministry, the number of spam complaints received by its anti-spam Web site,, surged to more than 106,000 last year from fewer than 3,000 in 2001. Many of those complaints came from overseas recipients of Korean-language spam.”

Why would an opt-out-based spam law in South Korea result in a spike in complaints from overseas? Maybe the law resulted in more spam overall, naturally creating spillover into other countries. Or maybe other factors are at work.

A quick Google search reveals that South Korea reportedly has a huge open-relay problem. For us techno-morons, this means that a lot of South Korean e-mail systems have been inadvertently set up so third parties can route their e-mail through these servers, disguising the origin of the e-mail.

Internet security and anti-spam lists are full of discussions about this topic. Here is a partial post from a security discussion list:

“As part of the crash government program to get everybody wired, the same software package was installed at most of the elementary and high schools in the country, and it contained a wide open HTTP->SMTP proxy. Every school in the country was full of open relays on broadband links.”

South Korea was one of 16 countries that U.S. officials named in May as accounting for 90 percent of 1,000 potential open relays they identified worldwide.

A tech worker from a well-known anti-spam service provider who didn’t want to be named told me that open relays are a “significant cause” of spam coming to the United States from South Korea.

Moreover, South Korea is the most wired country in the world. At the end of 2002, 68 percent of South Korean households had Internet access, and 95 percent of those had broadband, according to New York research aggregator eMarketer. Also, practically all of South Korea’s businesses reportedly have high-speed access.

The country is also reportedly experiencing a dot-com boom from record levels of online gaming, shopping and advertising.

“From high school students to company workers, droves of South Koreans have taken to online shopping in the world’s most wired country, helping make Internet firms a rare bright spot in a deteriorating economy,” a May 28 Reuters report said.

And how about the culture?

“‘BaliBali’ or ‘quickly, quickly’ is the way everything in Korea works,” said the eMarketer report on South Korean broadband penetration. “Have an idea? Do it … yesterday. Whereas in Western society, more time is taken to investigate and prepare, Korean society functions by simply getting things done; whether it’s done right or not is not always relevant.”

Logically, wouldn’t a surge in spam be likely to coincide with a dot-com boom in such a wired country with a well-known open-relay problem and a propensity to leap without looking?

Clearly, South Korea’s passage of opt-out anti-spam legislation is far from the only factor causing its spam problem.

On another note, anti-spammers have been holding up the European Union’s passage of an opt-in-based law as an example to follow. Please, these people can’t even work an eight-hour day.

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