Junk Laws Can't Cut the Spam

Article excerpt


Unsolicited commercial junk email, or "spam," is a huge problem. Especially the porn; I have to shoo my children out of the room when I check my e-mail. But junk legislation offered up to presumably solve the problem can make things worse.

Touted at an unsolicited press conference last week, Sen. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, proposed legislation that would impose subject-line labeling requirements for commercial e-mail (it would have to say "ADV"); forbid concealing one's identity; mandate an "unsubscribe" mechanism; ban the use of software capable of collecting e-mails from the Internet; set up stiff non-compliance fines; and establish an expensive (and likely hackable and thus worse-than-useless) Do-Not-Spam list at the Federal Trade Commission. Of course, politicians exempt themselves as possible offenders under anti-spam legislation, remaining free to send us junk campaign material.

The downside to an Internet in which you can contact whomever you want, is that anyone can contact you. Spammers pay no postage or long-distance charges. The solution is to shift those costs back to the spammer; the question is whether to do that is legislatively or technologically.

Plainly, peddling fraudulent merchandise or impersonating somebody else (such as a person or organization like AOL) in the e-mail's header information should be punished, as should breaking an agreement made with an Internet service provider (ISP) that prohibits bulk mailing.

But in the debate over the outpouring of spam, it's important to avoid unintentionally stifling beneficial e-commerce. Regulating communications isn't something to be done lightly. If a law merely sends the most egregious spammers offshore to continue hammering us, that may simply create legal and regulatory hassles for small businesses trying to make a go of legitimate e-commerce, or for mainstream companies that are not spammers. Commercial e-mail, even if unsolicited, may be welcome if the sender is a business selling legal and legitimate products in a non-abusive manner.

As the market works to shift costs of commercial e-mail back to the sender, we must be on guard against legislative confusion in approaches like Mr. Schumer's: How might the definition of spam expand beyond unsolicited and commercial e-mail?

What about unsolicited political or nonprofit bulk e-mailings, press releases, resume blasts and charitable solicitations? …