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Spam legislation looms

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Stemming the tide of electronic spam

With the widespread popularization of the Net, the information superhighway is no longer populated solely by tech geeks, phone phreaks, and Unix gurus. Relatively recently, the World Wide Web has become a hangout for moms and pops, dudes and babes, just about everybody, in fact, including your brother, across the country.

And don't think for one minute that marketing agencies haven't noticed. Indeed, the profile of the average netizen is incredibly attractive demographically -- well-educated, making gobs of money, and ready to purchase goods and services.

So it's no surprise that unsolicited, commercial email, a.k.a. "spam" or junk mail, has come into being -- nor is it any surprise that there's a movement a foot to stop the spammers.

If you've not had the (dis)pleasure of receiving spam in your inbox, consider yourself lucky. People who have been on the Net a while and have not exerted painstaking care to keep their addresses private often receive scores of the unwanted junk every day.

The quantity of spam sent out every day is astounding. This spring, America Online estimated that 10 million of the 30 million incoming emails they process each day were spam, causing massive network congestion. One company, Cyberpromotions, was responsible for 1.8 million solicitations, making them one of the most notorious spammers in the world.

It might not be so bad if the spammers were advertising quality products and services. More often than not, spam consists of get-rich-quick schemes, miracle diets and dial-a-porn. Amazingly, these junk bombers often also offer lists of addresses so you can do some spamming yourself.

AOL and CompuServe, meanwhile, have fought back -- winning a court injunction in February requiring Cyberpromotions to leave identifying evidence on their advertisements so that filtering mechanisms would be effective, and banning spam outright in the case of CompuServe.

Close to home, Luke Schelvan, System Administrator at Missoula's Internet Connect Services, says that of the 30,000 emails processed every day, about 60 percent are spam. This signal-to-noise ratio has become so abhorrent that he has developed and installed an email filter to block email from known spammers. This protects users from much of the junk mail, but does little for ICS's system resources.

Ultimately, that's why spam is so objectionable. Unlike paper junk mail, in which advertisers pay the production and postage costs, unsolicited commercial email functions under a recipient-pays system. Even if it seems like little hassle to simply delete the advertisements from your mailbox, this chore begins to cost when you're receiving 40 or 50 or 100 spams every day, especially if you're paying long-distance charges to connect.

The more significant cost, though, is in system resources. Your Internet provider pays for their connection to the Net, and how much they pay is largely related to how much bandwidth they use. When a spammer can bombard your provider with hundreds of thousands of (either incoming or outgoing) junk email in a single day, the provider uses more bandwidth. Their servers' disk space and processing resources are also inordinately strained.

System administrators are forced to spend time upgrading and mainlining the overworked machines. The provider has no choice but to pass all these costs on to you, the end user.

In the long-standing tradition of the Internet, cyberlibertarians call for technological rather than legislative solutions. This is attractive, but it must be remembered that the spammers are not technologically inept. They've developed software to cull millions of email addresses, relay their junk mail through third-party servers, effectively cloak their origins, and change their addresses daily to stymie filtering tools.

So, a legislative solution may be looming. At least three bills are being considered by federal lawmakers:

  • S 771 would require that all spammers identify their emails with the word "advertisement" in the subject line. End users would then be able to request that their ISP block further mail from that domain. The problem with this bill is that the difficult work -- and the fines -- are required of the ISPs, rather than the spammers themselves.

  • S 875 would criminalize bogus "from" addresses and require spammers to honor unsubscribe requests. The goal here is to make spam more palatable and trustworthy, in effect, legitimizing junk.

  • HR 1785 goes after the spammers at the source. Actually an amendment to the 1991 anti-junk-fax Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the bill would simply make it illegal to send an unsolicited commercial email to someone with whom you have no prior business or personal relationship. Violators would be tracked not by their domain name (which prevents spammers from hiding behind variable addresses), but by their mailing address or ISP, and could be sued up to $1,500 per email.

For more information on the fight against spam, visit the Coalition Against Unsolicited Email website at www.cauce.org and the informative site spam.abuse.net.

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