Support bills that seek to curb spam

April 02, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Just for kicks, I log on to our family's America Online account from time to time to see what's in my mailbox. Last night, I found 58 messages waiting. Here are some of the topics:

Register to win your Dream Vacation!

Gamble Gamble Gamble!

No obligation loan quote

Fastest payout on the net * feel lucky?

STOP SNORING! GUARANTEED!

Amazing energy booster!

Are you sinking in Bills?

New Herbal Supplement treats impotence

Turn Your Sex life into dynamite

DISCOVER Up to 70% SAVINGS On Life Insurance!

And so on. None of the 58 messages was from anyone I know. In fact, I haven't sent more than a half-dozen messages through AOL over the last four years, and I never give out the address. So my mailbox was wall-to-wall spam - unsolicited electronic junk mail.

Eleven messages offered loans and credit cards - or debt consolidation for people who can't pay off the loans and credit cards they already have. Online gambling casinos, porn sites and ads for sexual aids accounted for another 18. There were three free-vacation pitches (all from outfits trying to peddle condos built in some newly drained southern swamp), and 10 from an online electronics store that I've never patronized.

But I shouldn't complain. A year ago, I would have received three times as much Spam. AOL has cleaned up its filtering act considerably. Unfortunately, my normal business and personal e-mail accounts are increasingly being inundated with this garbage, too - and I'm tired of it. So is virtually everyone else who has to wade through these get-rich-quick solicitations, sex ads, work-at-home scams and other electronic detritus.

The worst thing about Spam is that, unlike traditional direct mail or even telemarketing calls, junk e-mail costs the sender virtually nothing. Even a small percentage of responses can be immensely profitable. So there's no financial incentive to stop it or even limit it.

In fact, as recipients, we pay indirectly for spam, because our Internet Service Providers (ISPs) collectively spend billions on equipment and personnel to handle it. Some ISPs estimate that 40 percent of their e-mail volume is stuff that nobody wants. Sudden floods of spam can overwhelm a small or medium-sized ISP's e-mail servers.

Like Internet privacy, spam consistently shows up at the top of users' Internet concerns in poll after poll. We already have laws that prohibit junk faxes and restrictions on telemarketers (unfortunately, they don't include capital punishment). Why can't lawmakers do that with spam?

Something always seems to come up. Last year, an anti-spam bill passed in the House of Representatives by a 427-1 margin but never got to a vote in the Senate. This year, anti-spam forces are starting earlier. Last week, they won a significant victory, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a similar, though weaker bill (H.R. 718), clearing the way for a floor vote. A similar bill is in the Senate.

In approving the bill, the committee turned aside protests from the banking, insurance and securities industries, who joined forces with the bill's traditional opponents in the direct-mail industry. I figure that if telemarketers, banks, insurance salesmen and stock touts are against a bill, it must be OK.

The legislation would require all e-mail advertisements to be labeled as such (which would allow users to filter them directly into their trash folders). It would prohibit commercial soliciations without valid return e-mail addresses and provide criminal and financial penalties for spammers who ignore users' requests to stop.

Critics say the bill doesn't go far enough. It would allow ISPs who establish a junk e-mail policy to sue spammers and collect up to $500 per message. But the maximum penalty is $50,000, which is hardly worth a lawyer's time. While individual recipients may sue spammers, the bill prohibits class-action lawsuits - which traditionally strike far more fear into the hearts of wrongdoers. Likewise, the language encourages state attorneys general to sue spammers but prohibits them from seeking reimbursement of their costs from the miscreants. That would eliminate the kind of incentive that persuaded state attorneys general to take on giants like the tobacco industry.

Some industry lobbyists say the bill gives far too much power to ISPs themselves and could block legitimate efforts to communicate with existing customers. For example, ISPs would be able to block spam from outside sources but pass it on from those who pay them for the privilege as long as recipients can opt out.

So it's complicated - so complicated that two online e-mail watchdogs, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email and Junkbusters.com, have withdrawn their support from the legislation.

Still, the bill is a step in the right direction, and it probably deserves your support. Powerful lobbies have many alternatives when they want to kill legislation - they may have lost this round, but there are more steps to go.

If you want to stop spam, or at least reduce the volume of it, write your senators and representatives to let them know you're tired of being bombarded with this trash.

But don't send e-mail. A study released last month by the Congressional Management Foundation and George Washington University found that senators and representatives are already drowning in a flood of political spam - mass mailings from special interest groups. The average senator, the study noted, gets 55,000 messages a month.

Few congressional offices are equipped to separate the junk from constituent e-mail, so if you want to be heard, it's best to drop a letter at the post office.

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