Stopping spam is the responsibility of the spammer, not Big Mother

By Gord Gekko
web posted November 1997

I, as most of you, have received important email offering free membership on adult websites, miraculous hair recovery systems, ways to clear up my credit, or amazing opportunities in the multi-level marketing field ($50 000 in nine days I'm told in one). My efforts to keep this unsolicited commercial email (UCE), better known as spam, out of my mailbox has led to the use of elaborate filters in Outlook Express and adding ".no.spam" at the end of my email address in newsgroup postings...all for naught.

Spam is probably one of the more noxious side effects of the near instantaneous communication system known as the Internet. It is also the scene of battle between netizens and those who send the spam. That is precisely where the battle should be, and not between governments and the spammers.

Unfortunately though, the battle has moved past spammers and their victims. While some cyber-libertarians have warned against government action against this problem, net users seem to welcome any intervention, and when government hears your pain they begin to move.

There are several proposals making the rounds of Washington D.C. seeking to protect netizens from spammers such as Sanford "Spamford" Wallace, Jeff Slaton and Larry Host. While all three bills are seen as laudable efforts to "protect" us from spam, they are also ham-fisted approaches that strike at the notion of free speech, capitalism and liberty.

The first of these "solutions" is S 771, The Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Email Act of 1997 proposed by Senator Frank Murkowski (R - Alaska). S 771 would require all commercial email to begin with the word "advertisement" in the subject line. The bill would require a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) to block such email within 48 hours of a customer's request or face fines from $5 000 to $11 000. S 771 effectively holds an ISP accountable for the actions of someone else. If Wallace and his ilk area able to get past the filters of your local ISP, then the ISP will pay for it.

The second proposal is S 875, The Electronic Mailbox Protection Act of 1997. Proposed by Senator Robert Torricelli (D - New Jersey), S 875 would ban sending email with a false "From:" line and the registration of new domains to avoid filters. The bill would force spammers to honour requests to remove someone from their mailing lists and ban U.S. companies from moving spam operations offshore. Spammers could be fined $5 000 per violation and ISPs and their customers who receive unwanted email could collect $500 per message.

The third proposal is HR 1748, The Netizen Protection Act of 1997. Proposed by Representative Chris Smith (R - New Jersey), spam would be completely banned unless a prior relationship existed between the sender and the receiver. A spammer could be fined $500 to $1 500 for each incident. This bill would treat junk email as it would junk faxes (one of Sanford Wallace's old businesses) even though the two forms of communication are completely different.

Of the three, Smith's proposal is easily the most odious. HR 1748 targets junk spam and faxes, something relatively easy to deal with. I find it rather hypocritical that the bill targets junk email, while the average American's real mailbox continues to be filled with garbage, delivered by the government no less!

S 771 begins innocuously enough, by requiring an identifying word in the Subject line, but perversely forces ISPs to bear any costs if the spammers defeat their measures. Should the United States Postal Service be fined if it continues to deliver junk mail against the wishes of a customer?

S 875 is the most palatable because what it mandates could easily be done by the spammers themselves.

Groups like the American Freedom Fighters, who drape themselves with pious injunctions to stop "anti-commercialist fanatics wishing to stop Direct Marketing conducted through the Internet" because all AFF wishes to do is fight for the "complete and total freedom of any type of non-fraudulent business on the Internet" make one important mistake: it is their actions which are resulting in the bills.

I support free market enterprise, probably more than the American Freedom Fighters ever could, but I also support responsibility in free speech. It is the concept of responsibility that the spammers ignore. Cyber-Promotion's Sanford Wallace prattles constantly in interviews about freedom and the free market, yet goes through contortions of every kind to evade filters designed to block him, resulting in inconvenience to people who do not want his spam.

"We will not tolerate anyone attempting to take away our freedoms (THE SMITH BILL TRIES TO DO THIS).  Our forefathers have fought and died so that we may buy, sell, and live in peace.  Is your Senator/Representative concerned with freedom and rights of the people or is he/she more concerned with being elected for another term?"
- American Freedom Fighters website

Blaming the "anti-commercialist fanatics" for their own sins is what got spammers into the sights of Capitol Hill in the first place. If they want to avoid government action and preserve their free market rights, they must do the following (snipped more or less from an anti-spam website):

First, send mail only to people who ask for it, not to people who have just not asked to be removed. Many internet users pay by the hour for their access. Some pay by the mail message. Some pay by the amount of information sent. Sending a message to a potential customer at their expense is very different than sending mail to a customer through regular mail, at your expense.

Second, offer a means to remove oneself from the mailing lists. It's a waste of time and money to send mail to users who will never buy anything from invasive Internet marketers. Keep a constantly updated "do not mail to" list, and trade lists with other spammers to eliminate names of users who might not have sent angry mail, but are against SPAM nonetheless.

Third, identify yourself to customers. Some SPAMS come in the guise of "helpful suggestions" or "friendly comments": as in "I noticed your post, and thought you would be interested in saving some money..." This is intentionally misleading. If you have something to sell, say so. Don't make the first contact with your customer a lie or misleading statement.

Fourth, facilitate filtering of unwanted messages. There are ways you can have Sendmail add tags to the header of your message to allow it to be identified as an advertisement and handled automatically by users' filters.

And finally, identify your mailer appropriately. Mailers can insert extra lines in the header, such as X-Bulk-Mailer:, to identify themselves. Users who wish to automatically filter out bulk mail may do so. For SPAM software sellers, this is also good advertising for your product; you can include a mini-ad in the header if you wish.

It is unfortunate that any spammers who adopt a code of ethics are likely doing so in the face of government action, thereby making it less than voluntary, but the fault for that lies with the bulk emailers.

This is a lesson to all people who would do business without any regard to personal responsibility and ethics. If the spammers had adopted a voluntary code of ethics in the beginning and not used fraudulent methods to get their message out, then the big push for government action like the, Smith bill, wouldn't exist. While a few want all commercial activity banned from the Internet, they are anti-capitalists and should be ignored. The network thrives today because of business, not some kid in their bedroom creating bloated websites.

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