Spam: Public Enemy No. 1

The coming months will bring debate and, hopefully, action on anti-spam legislation. See what readers had to say about this article.

Theres nothing so unifying as a common foe. Finally, a war has united the country with a common sense of purpose not seen since the "greatest generation" was in its prime. It took an enemy so pernicious that the best efforts of the brightest minds have been unable so far to curb it. This enemy is costing the United States billions annually in lost productivity. The enemy, of course, is spam.

Although the nation is one in its loathing of unsolicited e-mail touting easy riches and improved bodily characteristics, the country is only beginning to come to grips with how to deal with the problem. We look forward to the coming months of debate and, we hope, action on anti-spam legislation.

The first order of business will be to define spam. Is it any unsolicited business message, or must it be fraudulently sent? Certainly e-mail emanating from a phony address must be quashed. Our litmus test for everything else would be informed consent. Senders must keep records showing when and how recipients signed up to receive e-mail and be ready to show this to recipients on demand. These preferences must also be modifiable online by recipients. The addition of "ADV:" in front of e-mail subject lines is a necessary requirement.

Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo are putting their heads together to find the best ways to eliminate spam from their vast e-mail networks. The most encouraging part of their cooperation is the recognition that multiple approaches are necessary.

Because politicians can hardly lose by opposing something as scorned as spam, we shouldnt be surprised to see the current spate of anti-spam bills. But the first step in law is to do no harm. Lets not pass in haste laws that make our lives worse. The bill filed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., will encourage bounty hunting, which is likely to create problems of its own due to false accusations.

A bill from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., meanwhile, would mandate up to two years jail time for a convicted spammer and create a no-spam registry that is similar to the FTCs "do not call" list. If legislators believe prison time is too Draconian—we dont—then the financial penalty must be equal to any profit made from spamming, plus a significant punitive assessment. Schumers bill is an advance beyond the weaker so-called CAN-SPAM bill, which was reintroduced last month by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Until the right legal measures are enacted—and even after that—businesses will have no choice but to implement anti-spam technologies. Ferris Research predicts the market for corporate anti-spam services will total about $55 million this year and more than $850 million in 2008. Thats a lot of money, and thats why laws are needed. Without them, we face an escalating and ever-more-expensive game of cat and mouse.

Still, were heartened by the rising tide of spam awareness. Its an essential first step in ensuring that our cyber-environment is livable and productive.

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