On a mission to eliminate spam

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MP Derek Wyatt is chairman of the All Party Internet Group. He is currently working on an overhaul of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and is trying to stamp out spam. Brave ambitions, but how likely is it? We sent Dan Ilett to find out.

A policeman armed with a machine gun is looking at me. As I walk through the mag-and-bag inspection at Portcullis House, I see a bulletproof glass wall in the foyer. There are police and security guards everywhere. The receptionist takes my name and tells me to sit and wait for Derek Wyatt, the Member of Parliament I am here to see.

Five minutes later, Wyatt appears. A burly-faced man of large constitution, he shakes my hand firmly and we move towards the security door that leads into the main part of the building.

Wyatt grumbles that he has left his pass in his office. He waves at the policeman on the other side of the glass and orders him to open the door. The policeman looks startled and unsure, but opens the door to him and lets me through as well.

Wyatt shows the policeman a business card and gestures that he has not got time for any more questions. He charges through, so I follow, and the policeman says nothing. I wonder if they are aware that I am a journalist writing for a magazine about security...

Wyatt and I go to a cafe to talk about his work. "I haven't read the Computer Misuse Act (CMA)," Wyatt says. "I've only had a briefing document about it. They say it's a very well written piece of legislation, which is why the lawyers said 'don't meddle coz it's good'. It's rare for a government to write anything that's good. I think we felt at the end of the last session that amending the law would be quicker. I think [that's] right and would mean we can get it out for the Queen's speech in November."

Wyatt wants a world organisation to govern the internet. He wants to rid it of spam and says internet service providers (ISPs) should ban it. He is campaigning for a better CMA with harsher penalties for criminals. He wants board directors to be accountable for security breaches and thinks Jeb Bush, brother of the US president, is culpable for the majority of spam.

Bold ideas. But are they practical? He freely admits there are hurdles to jump. The All Party Internet Group (APIG), which Wyatt formed in 1997, is trying to make these ideas happen. The group is currently debating if the CMA (1990) needs a rewrite or just a few tweaks.

Wyatt feels the law is old and that hackers and spammers have too much freedom to exploit the internet community. Wyatt wants that to change.

"The fact is, in 1990 it was different," he says. "There wasn't anything [in government] to do with the internet then. In fact I had the first discussion on the internet in a 90-minute debate. I wasn't sure which minister would respond – the minister for culture, the minister for the DTI or a minister for the cabinet. In the end it was the DTI minister.

"What I was trying to show was that [the internet] is out of control because no one owns it. It's still out of control. Some say that the ISPs should be taking responsibility; others say they don't want to be bureaucratic but they could do with some additional help. I guess we've got to look at that."

Wyatt says that internet task forces are undermanned. He also believes that the minor penalties for computer crime acts are failing to work as an effective deterrent.

"These eastern European guys who write code that invades your email – well, you know, they've just got to go," he says, with the wave of a hand. "What we need is a modern version of Interpol. We can't do it on our own. The extraditing of people, perhaps the penalties aren't severe enough – all of that needs to be looked at. But if we've only got a number of people looking at the issue..."

But, leaping hurdles could be a slow process. As the internet rapidly evolves, Wyatt is concerned that changes to the law will take time to push through parliament. Drawing the boundaries of the cyber world is the first obstacle.

"The government thinks around a snail's pace," says Wyatt. "There's a problem over the definition of computer," he says. "Is this a computer? [points to mobile phone] It's got a calculator on it. I dunno. I suppose we have to define it. I suppose it's a digital application, but I hope we don't have to define it too much, otherwise we'll be drawn down."

Wyatt's aim is to ensure the internet is regulated. The problem, he says, is with no one owning it – there is no one to take control.

"The question I ask is: who owns the internet?," he says. "It seems to me there are lots of partners who own it: routers [he looks quizzical], ISPs and telcos. I wonder if we can get together to create something. The deeper issue is that it's now time for a world organisation for the internet, and I'd like it to be here." I ask Wyatt how effective he thinks changes in the law will be.

Avoiding the question, he moves onto general law and talks about educating judges and juries for high-tech cases.

"If you take Enron as an example," he says. "Do you think 12 ordinary jurors will understand about that? You've got to hope one or two do and they can persuade the rest. But in high-tech crime – my god, you do need... it's a tough one.

"I'm a civil libertarian by large, so I'd probably side with the jury. I can see the argument for having a judge who has an expertise on this issue. It's a difficult one. The next thing is bringing them into the 21st century. It might take another 400 years. They are a law unto themselves."

Wyatt's hatred of spam stems from his family life. He has two children and feels they are overexposed to pornographic spam. His anti-spam campaign took him to the US, where he tried to provoke a response from the American government and media.

"My family got sick of it, especially pornographic emails," Wyatt says. "With the children, it just touched a nerve. I'd like to see the ISPs have a ten commitments list to stop spam."

The MPs who went to America were shocked that the US government was unaware of the spam issue, Wyatt says.

"There was a huge interest," says Wyatt. "We were quite shaken by the amount of senators we saw that didn't see spam as a world issue. It's taken our summit last July and the OECD conference in February for the business community to say, 'Oh, hold on. We don't want the government to start getting involved here'."

Wyatt blames spammers in Florida more than anyone, and he holds Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, responsible. "Ninety per cent of the spam comes out of Florida, where Jeb Bush could, if he wanted to, pull it," says Wyatt.

Wyatt continues, "Jeb Bush is culpable, in my book, for sitting on the fence over civil liberties in Florida. When we went to Washington, we had to show them what happens in Florida. We couldn't believe they didn't know."

For some time, Wyatt pushed to have postcodes encrypted into every email as a method of identifying the sender.

"The ISPs don't like me," he says. "I don't get a Christmas card from them anymore. It's because when we went to America, they said they would not do anything about spam because it contravenes amendments two and 14 in the constitution (amendment two is free speech and 14 is location).

"I don't know what is wrong with amending it, but on location, it occurred to me that since we have postcodes for letters, if we were to encrypt a postcode into the mail, we'd know where they came from. The ISPs said I was completely and utterly mad, saying this would cause everyone to change their email addresses. Well, if I remember rightly, we've changed our phone numbers five times in the past 12 years, and I don't think it's a big deal."

When he put forward his proposal, Wyatt came under fire from the technical world, which criticised his theory for being "admirable but impractical".

In retrospect, he admits he was hasty, but he is still pushing for ISPs to ban spam and to, somehow, log the sender's location in email.

"I was chastised by the techies who thought I was a gibbering wreck, or a blithering idiot," he says. "I was probably a bit quick to put it into the public domain. I wasn't aware how an email was constructed until a friendly techie said, 'I like your idea, but do you know what this would mean?' I had no idea. That was ignorance on my part, but I know now how it's done.

"I still maintain that how we can put an end to this wretched spamming and marketing is to put location in, even if it's encrypted," he says.

Wyatt is optimistic about British internet politics. Many consider the internet to be an American invention, but Wyatt believes the British have some claim to it.

"My feeling is that we are some way ahead of the rest of the world in our thinking," he says. "It was an American invention, but I think we can say that with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, we have a right to some of it."

When Wyatt has to go, he shakes my hand and says goodbye. I walk over to the security guards and ask them something. One of the guards asks to see my security pass. I reply simply that I was not given one. He asks who I was seeing. "Derek Wyatt," I reply. He says Wyatt should not have left me alone without a pass, and politely escorts me off the premises.

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