You've got spam

March 29, 2003

NEED SOME real cheap Viagra? asks

How about a way to eliminate credit card debt without filing bankruptcy! offers

Would you like to look 20 again? wants to know.

Make a fortune in ADVERTISING! shouts

Re: extra inches, promises

Oh, that's right, this isn't your computer desktop, increasingly littered these days with such unsolicited e-mails -- otherwise wonderfully known as spam.

The Internet is a marvel. But it has also become a costly pipeline clogged by billboards for all manner of enterprises and scams, often sordid ones at that. If ever there was an example of a very good thing quickly ruined, this must be it: the Internet's endless possibilities for worldwide communication bogged down by trash.

Things move so fast in cyberspace that it's hard to know precisely, but experts say spam soon may account for half the e-mails ricocheting around the world, with substantial costs to recipients in time and money and no end to its uncontrolled proliferation.

Why not? At its simplest, marketing is reaching the most eyeballs at the lowest cost. Bulk e-mailers -- often using programs disguising senders and too often employing fraudulent lead-ins and questionable, if not criminal, proposals -- can send out hundreds of thousands of e-mails at incredibly little cost. It makes telemarketing or direct mail (43 percent of all U.S. postal mail) seem lavish.

Of course, many computer users awash in spam -- and it's not uncommon these days for some to get hundreds of junk e-mails a day -- may well have brought that upon themselves. Enter your e-mail address in a chat room, and you've lost control over who might use it. In a recent test, a fresh address offered in certain chat rooms reportedly led to receipt of spam in 10 minutes.

The deluge is such that more than half the states have or are working on laws to deter spammers in some fashion. The Federal Trade Commission is holding a national conference at the end of April, and possible national legislation is before Congress.

At least in theory, spam could go the way of bulk faxes, outlawed by federal legislation in 1991. Even the Direct Marketing Association supports some sort of control -- though that may be to avoid the strictest proposals, allowing solicitations only if e-mail account holders request them, an "opt-in" system adopted by the European Union.

In the meantime, such larger e-mail providers as AOL and Microsoft are deep into an arms race with spammers, trying to develop better filters to block spam -- filters that often still have problems differentiating with certainty between spam and legitimate messages. AOL right now blocks 100 million more e-mails a day than it delivers. The market may succeed where regulators fail.

All that touches on a philosophical problem involved in trying to regulate a mode of communication rooted in anarchism. Like free speech, many argue that anyone should be free to send anyone an e-mail. And further, to attempt to regulate that would be to embark down a slippery slope toward squashing the best aspects of the Internet.

These free-speech advocates can take some comfort in the likelihood that any laws and filters are apt to stay one step behind many spammers' misplaced creativity. So, even under a strong federal law, you may well open your e-mail and still find that wants to tell you about a way to "average $721 daily for just 90 minutes of work." And if you believe that ...

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