Killing a Good Idea, or Why Canada Sucks

Canada DayTomorrow is July 1st. In my country, that means it’s Canada Day, a day that celebrates the confederation of this country in 1867. Normally a time to celebrate this great country, its long traditions, and the freedoms that we enjoy – freedoms that we sometimes take for granted – I choose this year to put that all aside in lieu of a troubling rumor coming out of Ottawa. You see, Canada is at a crossroads in the war on spam, and it appears that spam is going to win that war.

In 2010, Canada passed a bill called the Fighting Internet and Wireless Spam Act, a law that gained notoriety due mostly to incredibly stiff penalties threatening spam-happy businesses which, as the adage goes, were not part of the solution. Under the original law, any businesses that posed part of the problem could expect fines up to $10 million, and individuals with their hands caught on the Send button could face penalties up to $1 million. The law was controversial, but Canada was lauded for taking a tough stance on the social disease known as spam.

“Canada is seen as a haven for spammers because of the gaps in our current legislation… a place where spammers can reside and inflict their damage around the world,” stated Tony Clement, Industry Minister for the Canadian government, at the time. The law could be in place in a matter of months, he boasted, and the kingdom was generally happy. It was a victory for the righteous, and a reason for spammers and badly-behaved telemarketers to worry. The new law was tough, and amid some controversy over the stiff penalties – controversy created by those who feared they would be subjected to those penalties – for the most part, it was good.

Nevertheless, there were those who rightly pointed out that Canada was the last of the G8 countries to propose and pass anti-spam legislation, and that countries like the U.S., which passed its CAN-SPAM bill in 2003, were still incredibly spammy, anti-spam law or no. Industry Minister sounded like the new sheriff in town, though: “Canada is seen as a haven for spammers because of the gaps in our current legislation… a place where spammers can reside and inflict their damage around the world.” This legislation was intended to address that and deal decisive blows against anyone who dared litter peoples’ inboxes with junk.

But as the old saying goes, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ So we talked about it and debated it. We discussed how big and impressive this bill was. We talked about how Canada might have problems actually enforcing the law against foreign assailants. We noted how lobbying groups were keeping the bill in limbo by complaining noisily. We talked. Again. And again. And again.

We waited.

Three years later, on the eve of Canada Day, we now know that the bill’s on life support. Several media outlets, including Naked Security, are now reporting on the law’s last wheezy gasps for air. Naked Security reports that leading Canadian Internet law expert Michael Geist sees at very best, no enactment of this law until 2017, and at very worst, the total shelving of the bill.


Lobbyists – the vociferous and powerful few who drown out the shuttered masses – have pretty much put the Canadian government and its bill in their place. “The main pressure against the legislation,” says Naked Security, “comes from marketing firms, upset that they might be blocked from sending out advertising, but also from charity lobbies fearing the loss of a useful route to potential donors.”

Wait a second: aren’t those very firms the ones responsible for spam? Of course they are. It’s no secret that ‘legitimate’ spam is every bit as frustrating for users as the stuff churned out of the bowels of Siberia and Nigeria. Suggesting that your unsolicited email is not spam because you have a published address and don’t routinely push Viagra on the masses is, of course, ludicrous. We’ve seen plenty of evidence from governments around the world – governments that are actually taking action, that is – to support the notion that people have no tolerance for your brand of junk just because you don a white hat. And the marketers know it, too.

The ruling Conservative government – the very same government that passed the bill back in 2010 – has had plenty of problems to date, with scandals that reek only slightly more of buffoonery than of chicanery. So this one has slipped through the cracks. And perhaps that’s where the anti-spam law will stay.

Happy Birthday, Canada. I weep for you this Canada Day.

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