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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

BY TRACEY S. ROTH
Managing Editor, C@LL CENTER Solutions


[November 17, 1999]

Spam Us Not Into Frustration

I've been thinking about spam lately. No…not the luncheon meat. Something even more unpleasant, though I offer all apologies to the Hormel company for that sentiment. I recall the Monty Python "Spam" sketch in which Terry Jones, dressed as a greasy spoon waitress, recites the breakfast specials to two patrons, beginning with egg, bacon and Spam. He runs down dishes with increasing amounts of Spam until he finishes with "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam and Spam," despite the fact that the female patron, played by Graham Chapman, keeps repeating hysterically "I don't like Spam!"

Lately, we've all been feeling a bit like the woman patron at the diner. Though we dislike unsolicited and often fraudulent e-mail spam and vociferously complain about it, we keep receiving increasing amounts. I maintain an America Online account, though I seldom use it anymore. When I open my account once every few weeks, I find the predictable few chain letters and e-mail jokes from friends, but I am overwhelmed by the amount of complete garbage that piles up in there. "Lose 30 pounds in four days eating nothing but burritos!" "Chat with beautiful college girls!" "Get a 10 million dollar loan using nothing but your favorite auntie for collateral!"

Sometimes they get me at work, as well, which irritates me even more. Each time I receive a spam e-mail at work, I attempt to reply to it with an edgily-worded request to remove me from the list. Sometimes, my reply e-mail goes through. More often than not, the reply gets bounced back because the spammer has hid his e-mail address from me. One company, offering a miracle weight-loss substance, was so persistent I finally read the ad fully, looking for a phone number to which I could place a call and complain. I found no phone number, only a fax number that was constantly busy. Even if I wanted to buy their stupid miracle weight loss product, how would I get in touch with them? Voice over telepathy? Can they really be selling anything this way, or are they just out to make the rest of us miserable?

The problem has become so pervasive that the government has taken a few steps into the fray to see if there is support for regulation. E-mail spam may be an irritant to us, but I have read about and seen first-hand instances of children setting up e-mail accounts for themselves (often with the restraints some ISPs offer for kids' accounts that block objectionable sites), only to have the kids receive piles and piles of porn site-linked spam e-mails. The headlines in these messages are usually something deceptive, like "I've got the answer to your question" or "Here's something you've got to see!"

This tactic has proved alarming to Congresswoman Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico). In October, she submitted legislation called "The Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act of 1999" (H.R.3113), co-sponsored by Congressman Gene Green (D-Texas). The bill acknowledges that there is a right to free speech on the Internet and that unsolicited e-mail can be an important marketing tool for Web-based businesses. However, the bill also points out that receiving unsolicited e-mail forces both the recipient and the recipient's ISP to incur monetary cost. Based on these findings, Congresswoman Wilson hopes to be able to limit spamming under similar circumstances that unsolicited fax advertising was outlawed back in the 1980s. (Yes, you have a right to free speech, but you DO NOT have a right to exercise it using the fax paper I purchased or monopolize the machine I use for business purposes.)

While the passage of such legislation might seem like a shoo-in, similar bills have gone through Congress before and have failed to pass or are sitting on the sidelines. One such bill is the Inbox Privacy Act, sponsored by Senators Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey). This sidelined bill was a follow-up to Senators Murkowski and Torricelli's 1997 proposed anti junk e-mail provision that failed to pass due to the House's view that self-regulation is all the industry needs. The House members must not have personal e-mail accounts.

In light of this, some ISPs either are pursuing or have successfully pursued litigation against spammers who clog up their bandwidths with unsolicited e-mail or even worse, disguise spam to look like ISP-generated mail. Yahoo has filed a suit against one company and America Online won an injunction last year against a company that sent huge quantities of junk e-mails to AOL subscribers.

Regardless of which way the proposed spam legislation turns out, the good news is that the software industry wants to help you control the spam you get. Products currently available to control unsolicited e-mail include Garbage Man 1.0 from WaveOp, a product that integrates with America Online to provide spam control using customizable filters. Mail Shield acts as a software plug-in for your existing mail server and is also customizable. A third product, MailTalkX from SoftByte Labs, is a filtering and e-mail program that allows a user to automatically delete or respond to messages on the basis of message headers. For more anti-spam tools, visit the NewApps Software Archive.

More and more "anti-spam" Web sites are making their debuts on the Web. Most of these seem to be run by disgruntled Internet users who have decided to devote their knowledge of HTML to a good cause. These sites contain information and links for spam filtering products, sample letters to use when "flaming" a spammer, "blacklists" of companies that regularly or fraudulently spam, and information on legal recourse against unsolicited e-mail. They also include advice on how to discover a correct and workable e-mail address for a spammer who has deceptively hidden it from you to escape from being electronically guillotined by the 99.99 percent of Internet users who hate spam. (Don't ask me who the .01 percent who like spam is…but I know I'd never want to encounter that person in a dark alley.)

The point is that knowing how slowly the wheels of Congress turn and taking into consideration that regulating spam could cross the sacred First Amendment borders, don't count on anyone to do it for you anytime soon. Be proactive and preventive. Take back control of your inbox.

Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at troth@tmcnet.com.


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