BISSEX: Second Thoughts on Spam

So far today I have received 16 new pieces of e-mail. Eight of them are the usual -- items from discussion lists, messages from friends. The other eight are also the usual, unfortunately. They're what's known as "spam": junk e-mail.The official term is "unsolicited commercial e-mail." For those lucky readers unfamiliar with it, these messages are generally cheesy, repetitive, ungrammatical sales pitches. "ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A WAY TO DRAMATICALLY INCREASE YOUR BUSINESS OR START ONE?" asks the first spam message in my in-box. "AMAZING international calling rates," boasts the next. These are typical. Quick money. Lots of capital letters.By all accounts, the volume of spam on the Net is increasing. At one point earlier this year, according to a representative from America Online, an estimated 50 percent of e-mail traffic on that service was spam. Spammers are becoming more brazen now as well. Sanford Wallace, who prefers the nickname "Spamford," seems to revel in the negative press garnered by his business, Cyber Promotions.What to do? Those among the spam-beleaguered who have wished for legal weapons may soon have their prayers answered; two "anti-spam" bills are now making their way through Congress. One, in the Senate, enjoins Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to crack down on spammers. A newer one, in the House, targets offenders more directly. Great, right? Even if no spammer ever actually goes to jail, an anti-spam law would seem to be a victory for lovers of uncluttered electronic correspondence everywhere.I'm having second thoughts.The 1996 Communications Decency Act debacle shook my faith in legislative remedies to Net troubles. That infamous law, thought superfluous by many critics to begin with, was later found unconstitutional by a Federal Court in Philadelphia. It soured me, and I'm not even one of those wacky Libertarians who believe that the government should be dismantled and sold to AT&T.I also believe there are technical approaches that haven't been properly tried. Pioneering spam-busters are running various experiments that have started to catch on. Some nip budding spammers by making it impossible (or very expensive) to send thousands of messages at once. Others refuse to accept any mail from known spammers. Still others block out all messages with bogus return addresses like "friend@big.money.land."The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the most prominent Net-focused civil rights groups, says that both bills contain "constitutional difficulties, technical and logical problems, and other fatal errors." EFF Program Director Stanton McCandlish goes on to say, "We don't think a bill in one jurisdiction is going to solve the spamming problem alone."That "one jurisdiction" is the United States; though lawmakers may wish otherwise, no single country controls the Net. A spammer using a Los Angeles ISP today could work via Barbados tomorrow. A US law, good or bad, will only apply to perpetrators within US borders. Such a law might even be perceived as a business opportunity by the likes of Wallace, who could profit by setting up an offshore ISP catering specifically to spammers.While I certainly don't condone the actions of Spamford and friends, I do think they are unintentionally helpful. The Net was designed for open collaboration between scientists. If it is to survive the ravages of global capitalism it must toughen up. Like an inoculation injected into the bloodstream of the Net, spammers' antics will help generate a robust defense. The fact that Wallace wastes no time in bragging about his entrepreneurial exploits gives us rapid feedback on the effectiveness of our anti-spam methods. So if one of these bills does pass, my eyes will be on Cyber Promotions. If there are holes in the new law, Spamford will lead us right to them.***Sites in my SightsSpam-related information available online is proliferating almost as fast as spam itself. One interesting bunch of vigilantes, armed with superb technical sophistication and many practical suggestions, is running a Stamp out Spam Campaign. Sign on at their website (spam.abuse.net). Then, if you dare, you can see what Spamford is up to first-hand (www.cyberpromo.com).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingIf you disagree with me and feel that perhaps some laws on this point would be a good thing, by all means join the fight. The newly-formed Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE) has the full text of the new House bill on their website (www.cauce.org) and has several suggestions for how you can pitch in.Got a no-risk business opportunity for me? Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. For my spam-filtering secret, visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/)©1997 by Paul Bissex

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