SILICON LOUNGE: Spam Artistry
Internet spammers may be about to get a stamp of approval in Colorado. In a bill to supposedly limit unwanted e-mail, closely watched by other states, lawmakers may this term pass the Colorado June E-mail Law (HB 1309) to require businesses and nonprofit groups to label unsolicited mail advertising ("Adv") in its subject line and give recipients an "opt-out" option.Be wary, though. The bill would only legitimize spammers, while showing just how ignorant many people are about how e-mail abuses really work, and who pays the costs.Colorado's bill only would give users an easy way to organize a bunch of unwanted e-mail and then delete them en masse. The onus is still on the user, however. "I can't hit the 'delete' key until I have already incurred the expense of receiving the spam," Covington said in an e-mail interview. He would like to see Congress broaden the current junk fax law to cover spam. Unsolicited faxes are illegal because it uses up the recipient's paper and ties up fax machines. "Well, spam is the same way, except it's disk space instead of paper," he added.Most notably, the bill does nothing to defray user and ISP costs of all the crap that lands in our e-mail boxes. "The reason it costs nothing to send a million e-mails is that e-mail costs money to receive, not to send," complained spam critic Michael A. Covington of the University of Georgia's Artificial Intelligence Center.Free-speech advocates, however, say spam is a First Amendment right, albeit an annoying one. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed a toothless bill Nevada passed in 1997 outright outlawing sending unsolicited commercial e-mail to Nevadans. But spam critics say unwanted e-mail solicitations go too far, and thus should give up any speech protections, by heaving costs in money and time on often-unwilling recipients.Despite my usual affinity for the ACLU, I agree with spam critics on this one: Consumers should not be forced to pay for another's "speech," and Colorado's bill does nothing to protect consumers from funding the junk in the first place. Oh, but what about that opt-out option? Yeah, that's going to work. How many e-mails do you get now including a fake "remove" address?Clearly, spammers should first ask for the recipient's permission to send e-mail that costs the receiver money and time. The Internet is forcing consumers to reconsider the wisdom of allowing companies or governments to assume they can use personal information unless we say no; likewise, spammers must be required to ask first. Consumers should not bear the burden of trying to get removed from all these junk lists.Most annoying, the Colorado bill reeks of a failed pro-business slant. The thinking might go: We know the consumers are upset about spam, but Colorado is a free-enterprise kind of place. We have to protect businesses' right to solicit business. That reasoning is flawed, Covington said. "Legitimate advertisers do not spam." He points out that much spam involves pyramid and get-rich-quick schemes and sells products with improbable claims.The skeleton of a decent spam bill may be hidden between the lines of HB 1309. The bill would require that all e-mail be routed legitimately from consenting Internet domains. And recipients and ISPs could sue for $10 per illegal message, as under Nevada law. (Of course, you'd have to find the bullshit artists first.)Spam busters like Covington say that legislation must be stronger to make a difference. Spam should be outright banned, he believes. Penalties must be tough against fraudulent e-mail that gives any kind of fake addresses. All e-mail, Covington said, should be required to use a real e-mail address in its header, not buried at the bottom, forcing the recipient to go on a seek-and-find mission.Colorado's law is clearly bogus, but efforts in other states make more sense. In California, for instance, ISPs can sue spammers who violate their rules, whatever they may be, against targeting their customers. This is a clear improvement over both the no-balls Colorado bill and Nevada's bill that allows individuals to sue spammers. It's hard enough for individuals to get their addresses deleted from a spam list, much less get a complaint served. But, in California, providers like AOL can sue spammers for up to $25,000 a day. That carries a lot more clout than Nevada's piecemeal $10-an-e-mail collection allowance. But, any effort to outlaw -- rather than legitimize -- unsolicited commercial e-mail is better than none at all, spam critics say.The sponsor of the Colorado bill, Republican Rep. Shawn Mitchell, told the Rocky Mountain News that he is after "truth in packaging." That's useless: We all know junk mail when we see it. We just don't want to see it in the first place.It is imperative that Congress and the states refrain from legitimizing unwanted e-mail by giving spammers the right to attach neat little labels to their violations of privacy. Yes, some of this junk will still slip through regardless of legislation. But it shouldn't arrive with an official stamp of approval. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.