10 days later: The Israeli anti-spam law seems to work

Driving around Sao Paulo you don’t notice it. But when you drive back to the airport it suddenly hits you: billboard advertisements. They suddenly stick out, and you realize through all this time in the city there wasn’t a single billboard advertisement. Unsurprisingly, it’s too easy to get used to the lack of the big-city marketing assault on your senses that you usually see elsewhere. Sao Paulo may be polluted and congested, but when it comes to billboard advertisements there’s just none of it.

Spam is like that. You don’t miss it when it’s gone – you just get more attentive for spam that does get through.

A few months ago, Israel passed a law that might be the first of its kind(*): with very few exceptions, spam is now illegal in Israel. If you receive an email that you didn’t specifically opt-in for, and that email wants to sell you something, and either the entity who sent the email is Israeli or the company that benefits from the email is Israeli, you can sue in court and get the equivalent of $250 for every email you received(!) without any need to prove direct or indirect damages(!!). The law is phrased carefully to close all the obvious loopholes: Israeli companies are liable even if they were using off-shore machines to send the spam, and if you sue them, it’s them that have to prove that the email recepient voluntarily opted to receive those emails. Not only that, but you can’t use an opt-in consent to advertise someone else’s product (hence, list renting won’t work).

For me, seeing this type of law actually working is nothing short of incredible. My inbox was routinely filled with Hebrew emails from some of the largest consumer brands in Israel, who figured it’s cheaper to pay fractions of a cent per email to tell me about attractive deals for mineral water dispensers than take out a TV spot. Having qmail as my mail server allows me to make up emails addresses on-the-fly so I can easily track where a certain advertiser got my email: I signed up for the Jerusalem post alerts and got ads from a bunch of other advertisers. I opened an account in a now-defunct web 1.0 service and my email address for that service was sold on to about a hundred different small-time spammers. I signed up for the Israeli version of ‘classmates’ and in return got bombarded by offers to by TVs at a discount. Oh, and of course the typical spammers who just guessed my email address and are sending me updates about discounted airline tickets to Africa. The typical viagra-style emails arrive in quantities as well, but those are easily filtered out. Hebrew spam is a bit more difficult to filter because some of the legitimate email I get is Hebrew newsletters that I did actually sign up for.

So to think that from December 1, 2008, when the spam law becomes active, I will cut down on my delete-key presses was beyond what I could imagine.

The month of November was as you might expect:unbelievable quantities of emails asking me to opt-in to lists I never heard of. Each trying to convince me of the huge benefits of receiving unsolicited advertisements that might change my life. Some of these emails were angry: spammers don’t like it when their work is interfered, and a group claiming to represent the small businesses who ‘have no other choice than to send spam’ tried to tell me why the law is an immediate threat to small businesses. And when I say ‘tried to tell me’ I mean sent me a few dozen emails a day almost every day that month. Well, I stand unconvinced.

December 1st came, and the flood slowed down. Still the occasional email, usually treading on the border between legal and illegal – like emails that contained a request to opt-into the newsletter (this is allowed by the new law – once only) with a small commercial pitch towards the end. The notorious ‘people and computers’, a hitech magazine and an Israeli representatives of ‘information week’ sent me daily reminders that I have not yet opted in and ‘soon’ will stop receiving their daily newsletter if I don’t fix my ways. I would have sued, but the general manager of P&C met Bill Gates once and told him: “can I please have your card?” and when gates gave him his business card he replied with “No, your credit card”. You’ve got to hand it to him: he may be a bit of a jerk, but he is funny.

A couple of newsletters keep coming regularly, beginning the email with a long disclaimer that they are not an advertisement (the content is again borderline, I imagine at some point someone will challenge them in court) and there was the one spam email that arrived last week which I am taking to small claims court to get my $250 charity money.

But other than those – barely a handful, really – a peaceful silence. I can really get used to not getting Hebrew spam. Now if only we can get Russia to follow suit!

By the way: for those wondering where the ‘catch’ is in the spam law – or as the cynics would put it: how is it possible that politicians create an actually useful law – here’s a solution to the paradox. Being the parliamentarian state that Israel is, the law specifically allows political spam to be sent. So not to worry: the politicians excluded themselves nicely. Still, it’s a small price to pay for a relatively clean inbox.

Lets see how long this serenity will last – email is still a very tempting advertising channel. But when the potential cost is $250 per email, suddenly the ROI is not as not as attractive.

(*) I’m not aware of an opt-in spam law that allows anyone to sue the body who benefits from the spam without proof of damage. Please enlighten me if I’m wrong.

  • stephan

    “…and either the entity who sent the email is Israeli or the company that benefits from the email is Israeli, you can sue in court and get the equivalent of $250…”

    Isn’t there any requirement of proof that the company hired the spammer? If not, it is an invitation to abuse. Without such a requirement, anyone (e.g. competitors) can impose costs on a company by spamming ads for it. This would force the victim company to either hunt down the spammer, or pay unjust fines, whichever is cheaper.

  • http://www.BeyondSecurity.com Aviram

    @stephan – The law lays the burden of proof on the company that allegedly spammed. So you are right – this can easily be used to joe-job the competition; but that’s true for many other cyber-laws.