Microsoft internet venture Ninemsn is allowed by law to distribute advertisements for illegal operations, such as phoney tertiary qualifications vendors, via its email service Hotmail.
Late last week, Hotmail unwittingly distributed an advertisement among its 40 million worldwide users for a Chicago company offering to sell phoney tertiary qualifications over the internet.
According to Ninemsn official Aaron Stevenson, Hotmail's "terms of service" dictate that the free email service takes no responsibility for bulk content distributed via its channels.
However, Stevenson stipulated that Hotmail had recently implemented an anti-spamming function that enabled users to protect their email inboxes from bulk mail. The function stopped incoming email when the receiver's address appeared in the "bcc" (blind carbon copy) text box.
He admitted that Hotmail users who did not activate the anti-spamming function could, according to the company's terms of service, be sent advertisements for illegal organisations. Stevenson did not know how many Hotmail users had activated the anti-spamming function, or how many users had received the sham email advertisement.
Detective Frank Chaliro, spokesman for the NSW Police Service's computer crime division, conceded that there was no law prohibiting Hotmail from distributing the shady material.
He explained that fake university qualifications, whether distributed via email or in the street, were not illegal unless they were used for commercial gain. In fact, he said a NSW resident could legally purchase a fake US drivers' licence over the internet. The only breach of law would occur when the purchaser used the licence to drive, he said.
Similarly, Paul Childs, a spokesman for the Australian Department of Fair Trading, said the department could not reprimand Hotmail for distributing illegal material unless it received a large number of customer complaints. The department had not yet received a complaint relating to distribution of illegal material via bulk email, he said.
Meanwhile, Stuart Hamilton, executive director for the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, said that "anyone fooled into thinking these diplomas actually mean anything would not progress very far in a real university".