Taking A Byte Out Of Span

Their patience and ISP filters overwhelmed, citizens enlist the courts and legislatures to stave off mountains of junk e-mail

January 31, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Bennett Haselton doesn't get nearly as upset about unsolicited commercial e-mail as he used to. Deleting the junk from his inbox may cost him a few minutes a day, but he knows now that the War on spam can be taken to the enemy.

To that end, Haselton sued several companies in Washington state small claims court for sending unsolicited e-mails.

"You know the person [spammer] is stealing from you, even if it is a fraction of a penny that they're taking from thousands of people," said Haselton, a 23-year-old Seattle-area programmer. "But that still counts to you."

Haselton has won four $500 awards in five law suits under Washington's anti-spam law, which makes it illegal to send a commercial e-mail with false or missing routing information or a false or misleading subject line. It allows the spammed to collect damages from the spammer.

Maryland is considering similar legislation.

Even so, spam (the moniker for e-mail you never wanted to see) appears to be more annoying than ever.

Messages such as "Work from home," "Viagra without a Prescription" and the terse but descriptive "Zebra Sex" (in which only one partner has four legs) are filling up e-mail boxes around the world at an alarming rate. Filters provided by e-mail programs and Internet service providers offer only limited protection. And neither federal nor state lawmakers have dealt with the problem effectively.

Things might only get worse, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet market research company. The firm predicts that the average e-mail user in America will get 1,479 unsolicited messages a year by 2006, nearly three times the number they received last year.

Experts who track unsolicited commercial e-mail - the official definition of spam - say they've noticed a marked increase in the past three to four months.

"I've had the same e-mail address since 1993, which means I get a lot of spam - hundreds a day," said John R. Levine, an of the Internet for Dummies book series. "But even starting from my fairly high baseline, I'm seeing a lot more in the past few months."

Levine, a board member for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), said spam began showing up in volume in 1994 and 1995. "Most of it was fraudulent come-ons," Levine said. "The volume of porn didn't used to be nearly as high. Now, [porn spammers] are somewhere between increasingly shameless and increasingly desperate."

Spammers don't worry much about being penalized. "The worst thing that could happen is that you get your Internet connection yanked," Levine said.

While spam is often vulgar, it doesn't need to be patently offensive to be upsetting, said Tom Geller, executive director of the anti-spam nonprofit SpamCon Foundation (www.spamcon.org).

"Trying to sort out one legitimate e-mail out of three spams can lead to some real problems," especially if you accidentally kill legitimate e-mails while dumping spam, Geller said. "And let's not discount your inconvenience, such as wasting your time."

Spam is the top complaint among customers on America Online. But Internet service providers hate it, too, because it costs them money to process spam and it makes their customers unhappy. Most ISPs try to track down sources of spam and block the computers that send it.

"We've had to spend a large amount of time fighting it," said David Troy, president and CEO of ToadNet, a regional ISP based in Severna Park. Often, Troy said, spam comes from legitimate servers misconfigured to allow anyone on the Internet to use them to send mail.

Once notified, most companies with a misconfigured mail server will fix the problem - keeping spammers from using their devices. But there are so many mail servers that anti-spammers' efforts are hit-and-miss.

CAUCE (www.cauce.org) and other anti-spam organizations argue that the only real solution is a federal ban on all unsolicited e-mail advertising. Such a law would mirror the federal anti-junk fax law, which prohibits companies from sending faxes unless a recipient has asked for the information or has a previous business relationship with the sender. Violators can be sued for thousands of dollars.

One problem is that commercial speech has protection under the Constitution's First Amendment with some limits. You cannot commit fraud and hide behind the First Amendment. Just how much protection spam has remains to be seen.

Legal assaults at the state level on spam haven't been particularly impressive so far, said David Sorkin, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Several bills tackling spam at the federal level have died in Congress, while 19 states have come up with laws that deal with commercial e-mail in a variety of ways (all are listed at www.davidsorkin.com).

None outlaws spam outright. Some make it illegal to send messages with fake headers or subject lines; others require that messages give recipients the opportunity to decline further e-mails.

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