THE HUMORIST Dave Barry recently defined spammers -- sending out millions of bulk, unsolicited and often fraudulent e-mails -- as "the mutant spawn of a bizarre reproductive act involving a telemarketer, Larry Flynt, a tapeworm, and an executive of the third-class mail industry."
Trouble is, spam is no joke, having exploded so much over the last year or so that it's become much less of a mere annoyance and much more of a costly monster begging for federal regulation -- which may be coming later this year.
Short of that, about 30 states have enacted some form of anti-spam legislation, including Virginia, which Tuesday approved the nation's toughest such law. That measure makes it a felony to send out more than 10,000 deceptive e-mails in one day, potentially leading to one to five years in jail and seizure of spam-related assets and profits.
The Virginia law is overdue. Spammers have so abused this virtually no-cost advertising channel that they now account for at least half of all e-mails -- running up billions of dollars in extra bandwidth costs for Internet carriers that are passed on to consumers as higher access bills. There's also the lost productivity cost of deleting 20, 50 or 100 come-ons for porn, health aids or business scams every day.
Virginia took this regulatory battle to the next level because its Washington suburbs are home to many Internet providers, including the nation's largest, America Online. An estimated half of all Internet traffic flows through Virginia infrastructure.
By itself, AOL now blocks spam e-mails at the rate of 24,000 a year per account -- more than double the rate just eight weeks ago. A study released this week by the Federal Trade Commission, which yesterday opened a national conference on spam, shows two-thirds of all spam includes false text or "from" or "subject" lines.
From the spammers' vantage, this is a classic case of bingeing on a free lunch, one provided by all Internet users. It's just one of the ways in which commercial use of the Internet is driving the medium, born of anarchism, toward regulation -- in turn raising a thicket of vexing free speech, free enterprise and technical issues.
Do you, for example, bar all unsolicited e-mails from businesses to existing customers? And what defines such relationships?
What about nonprofits?
Do you allow spam sent only to those who've signed up to receive it, as the European Union decided?
Leaving aside such issues for the moment, spam must be corralled by comprehensive federal legislation. Increasingly sophisticated filters and isolated legal actions have not been sufficient to keep up with spammers. The new Virginia law is welcome, but even the top direct marketing trade group agrees in principle that national rules are needed.