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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[January 23, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

Spam And Eggs For Breakfast

I have spam with my coffee every morning. You probably do, as well. It's become a routine for hundreds of millions of office workers across the globe. Turn on the computer, fix a cup of caffeinated beverage, sit down, open the e-mailand watch the irrelevant and unwanted spam pour in. Four years ago, it dripped. Three years ago, it trickled. Two years ago, it began streaming in. Last year it started to pour in at a thunderous rate. This year, well you get the picture, even without all the water metaphors: a veritable tsunami of unwanted, off-color, often illegal and occasionally highly offensive spam.

Get-rich quick scheme spamming is irresistible to people who are allergic to working for a living. It's cheap, it's easy, it probably gets SOME results (hey, there are some strange people out there) and, most importantly, the spammers are protected from the wrath of the spamees. Why? Because, as we all know, they use fake e-mail addresses and once you're on their lists, there is no force known to mankind that will get you off them. They're also sheltered by the relative frontier nature of the Internet. Except in a few cases, there are no laws governing spam, certainly few federal laws. Even where there are, it's extremely difficult to catch and prosecute large-volume spammers (just ask the major ISPs like AOL, who for years have been trying to stop the torrents of unwanted mass spam tying up their systems, usually at the expense of legitimate e-mail.) Spam filters employed by the ISPs work to some extent, but they are far from an exact science, as many hopeful Harvard attendees discovered this fall when their e-mailed acceptance letters from the university were inadvertently block by AOL's spam filters.

Only 18 states have any form of legislation regarding unsolicited commercial e-mail. Most of the laws involve requiring an opt-out choice for the recipient, prohibiting the sending of false information, prohibiting the use of false routing information and return e-mail addresses and using a third-party's domain name without permission. (Spammers frequently commandeer the servers of other organizations to route their e-mail.)

All in all, it's a lovely set of rules and regulations that seem to indicate we're well on our way to controlling untargeted and obnoxious unsolicited e-mail. Unfortunately, spammers pay absolutely no attention to any of these laws, and little is done to enforce them in the first place. This shouldn't surprise us. The kind of people that have absolutely no compunction in preying on people's weaknesses (lose weight, stay forever young, make money, and have better er relationships) with bogus products and services are hardly likely to care whether or not we wish to receive their e-mails. When you're packaging a vitamin pill full of useless and/or harmful ingredients and claiming that it will make the purchaser get happy, grow hair, strike it rich, attain washboard abs, meet a soul mate and reduce the size of some parts of his body while enlarging some selected others, you're hardly going to pay attention to a vague and nearly impossible to enforce regulation.

A few organizations, including the Direct Marketing Association, have attempted to put together "do not e-mail" lists, in the hope that spammers would remove the e-mail addresses from their lists. These organizations have taken a cue from the successful "do not call" lists that some states maintain to enable people to stop receiving unsolicited telephone calls. Aside from these lists being enormous, they are expensive to implement, nearly impossible to update and, once again, are at the mercy of shady spammers.

Federal legislation regarding spam has been bouncing around Congress for years in different forms, but has always died on the vine. There were bills that allowed commercial e-mail to be sent on an "opt-in" basis only (you must make a request to receive info), which were generally rejected as too restrictive. Other bills involved mandating an "opt-out" function so you could choose to have yourself removed from lists. Spammers have lobbied against any type of regulation as a restriction of their right to free speech. I disagreeeveryone has a right to free speech, but they don't have a right to practice it uninvited in my living room. Do they have a right to practice it in my inbox, which is located inside my living room? I don't think sobut that's just my opinion.

Yes, we all know where the delete key is located and it's hardly strenuous to engage it. What concerns me is the amount of e-mail I receive that is not only distasteful but downright dangerous. I see products for sale that promise to improve workout efficiency by stoking up a user with the Chinese herb ephedra, a supplement purported to speed up the metabolism but when used improperly can spike the blood pressure and lead to heart attacks and strokes even in healthy young people. Beginning in September during the height of the anthrax scare, I received e-mails promising me a prescription for the antibiotic Cipro after an "online consultation" with a "doctor." This one burned me, and I sent it to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumental, as his office maintains a special department to deal with shady spam. He's probably up to his ears in it.

An interesting development in the never-ending saga of unregulated spam, though, is coming from individuals like you and I. The federal government seems unable or unwilling to craft any legislation and the spammers seem disinclined to restrain themselves, so certain people have sought relief in another corner civil court. In early January, a California state court of appeals upheld a 1998 law that requires spammers to use genuine e-mail addresses and provide a way for consumers to get themselves off lists. The legislation came about through the initiative of a single plaintiff against two Silicon Valley-based spammers. Unfortunately, this law can only be applied against California-based companies spamming California residents, and only if the spammers are using equipment located in the state.

Which should provide the rest of us with a clue that wading uphill through the spam to a clean inbox is going to be a long and distasteful road. And as always, all apologies to the Hormel Foods company at www.spam.com.

Contact the author at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com if you'd like to learn about a FREE exclusive offer for a product that will balance your checkbook, give you tight buns and make your children brilliant.

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