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Unsolicited commercial junk email, or "spam," is a huge problem. Especially the porn; I have to shoo my children out of the room whenI check my e-mail. But junk legislation offered up to presumably solve the problem can make things worse. Touted at an unsolicited press conference last week, Sen. CharlesSchumer, New York Democrat, proposed legislation that would imposesubject-line labeling requirements for commercial e-mail (it wouldhave to say "ADV"); forbid concealing one's identity; mandate an"unsubscribe" mechanism; ban the use of software capable ofcollecting e-mails from the Internet; set up stiff non-compliancefines; and establish an expensive (and likely hackable and thus
worse-than-useless) Do-Not-Spam list at the Federal TradeCommission. Of course, politicians exempt themselves as possibleoffenders under anti-spam legislation, remaining free to send usjunk campaign material. The downside to an Internet in which you can contact whomever youwant, is that anyone can contact you. Spammers pay no postage orlong-distance charges. The solution is to shift those costs back tothe spammer; the question is whether to do that is legislatively ortechnologically. Plainly, peddling fraudulent merchandise or impersonatingsomebody else (such as a person or organization like AOL) in the e-mail's header information should be punished, as should breaking anagreement made with an Internet service provider (ISP) thatprohibits bulk mailing. But in the debate over the outpouring of spam, it's important toavoid unintentionally stifling beneficial e-commerce. Regulatingcommunications isn't something to be done lightly. If a law merelysends the most egregious spammers offshore to continue hammering us,that may simply create legal and regulatory hassles for smallbusinesses trying to make a go of legitimate e-commerce, or formainstream companies that are not spammers. Commercial e-mail, evenif unsolicited, may be welcome if the sender is a business sellinglegal and legitimate products in a non-abusive manner. As the market works to shift costs of commercial e-mail back tothe sender, we must be on guard against legislative confusion inapproaches like Mr. Schumer's: How might the definition of spamexpand beyond unsolicited and commercial e-mail? What about unsolicited political or nonprofit bulk e-mailings,press releases, resume blasts and charitable solicitations? Whatabout newsletters that contain embedded ads? Or what about one'spersonal e-mail signature line with a link back to one's employer?That's a subtle solicitation, whether we admit it or not. At thevery least, unwise legislation would create serious headaches fornoncommercial e-mailers like nonprofit groups. Would pop-up adsbecome suspect in the aftermath of spam legislation? They're not e-mail, but they are unsolicited and commercial. Finally, legal bans on false e-mail return addresses, as well asbans on software capable of hiding such information, have worrisomeimplications for free speech and anonymity for individuals, and willbe ignored by spammers anyway. Well-meaning individuals can use"spamware" to create the contemporary version of the anonymousflyers that have played such an important role in our history.Individuals should retain the ability to safeguard their anonymityeven in (or perhaps especially in) a mass communications tool like e-mail. In an era in which so many people are concerned about onlineprivacy, a law that impedes a technology that can protect suchprivacy would be curious indeed. Smarter approaches to the spam epidemic include better e-mailfiltering, such as setting the owner's screen to delete bulk mailand to receive only from recognized and approved e-mail addresses.That's particularly appropriate for children's e-mail accounts.Emerging "handshake" or "challenge and response" systems capable oftotally blocking spam show promise: Because the most offensive spamis sent by automatic bulk-mailing programs that are not capable ofreceiving a reply, spam no longer appears in the in-box. Identifiers or "seals"' for trusted commercial e-mail could beanother means of helping ISPs block unwanted e-mail. A newconsortium including America Online, Microsoft, and Yahoo, toestablish "certified" e-mail would bolster this approach. Given the perfectly understandable desire to stop unsolicited e-mail, it is all too easy for Congress to undermine legitimatecommerce, communications and free speech. And crippling Internetcommerce would be especially pointless if spam continued pouring infrom overseas. A better target is unsolicited press conferences,like the one at which Mr. Schumer dropped his bill. $25,000 fine, atleast. Send payment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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