GENEVA--Millions of users may abandon the Internet and phone messaging systems unless governments and software companies join forces to block the spread of spam, key figures in an antispam drive said on Tuesday.
The global battle against spammers who use the Internet to disseminate pornography, distribute unsolicited sales pitches and engage in the new menace of "phishing" can be won in two years, officials running a three-day U.N. meeting told a news conference.
"If we don't work together," said Robert Shaw, Internet strategy expert with the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU), "we may see millions of people abandoning the Net entirely, out of frustration and disgust."
The ITU says spam drains national economies around the world of about $25 billion a year and estimates that lost productivity--through time wasted in clearing e-mail boxes--could be four times that amount.
"If we achieve full international cooperation among governments and software companies, this plague, which affects so many of us in our everyday life, will be defeated in short order," said Robert Horton, Australia's top regulator.
He said that software makers and regulators have the means to bring spam under control within two years.
Horton, whose country has developed some of the most advanced legislation to fight the spam clogging private and corporate e-mail boxes around the world, said he hoped the gathering would produce a draft agreement on solutions.
"No one country can tackle this alone," he said. "It is an international threat and we must work together to defeat it."
Officials said the conference would examine legislation that could enable governments to crack down on Internet service providers, or ISPs, that allow spammers to use their systems.
Many of the ISPs are well-known and include companies that are household names, according to the Web site www.spamhaus.org.
International cooperation would also enable regulators to assemble dossiers on companies and individuals engaged in spamming or in "phishing" and provide the basis for criminal prosecutions in the perpetrators' home countries, Shaw said.
"Phishers" send fake e-mails that purport to come from genuine banks or credit card companies and ask recipients to confirm account details or card numbers. These are then used to drain the accounts of recipients who respond to the messages.
Up to 10 per cent of recipients provide the vital information, ITU officials said