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The international consensus is clear on some points: Spam is a problem. Beyond the annoyance factor, spam can reduce productivity, encourage illegal activity, and lead to the exploitation of vulnerable populations. Most countries also agree that the language the United Nations uses to regulate online networks, developed back in 1988, is far too outdated to address modern concerns.

But the agreement comes to a halt much beyond these two points. The question that sparks far more debate is what to do to reduce the amount of spam without crossing the line into censorship. For the United States, with its strong emphasis on free speech, the notion of government limitations on spam represents a dangerous precedent, and perhaps the first step down a slippery slope. If a national government can reject certain forms of messages, by calling them spam, what is to stop it from censoring other types of messages too, such as political speech?

For other nations, including China, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, the threats created by spam—or “unsolicited bulk electronic messages,” to use the formal terminology—are sufficient to convince them that government assistance is needed. They argue that spammers have little incentives to police themselves and thus that government intrusion in the industry is necessary to protect users and citizens.

For now, the questions remain unresolved. The U.N. hopes that its World Conference on International Telecommunications can produce some resolution that sets some standard. But with parties on both sides of the issue able to block resolutions they find objectionable, we may be forced to wait a few more years for a final version.