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Mark Grossman

Spam - The Bane of the Internet

3 November 1998

Spam has to be the most annoying thing about e-mail. I hate it, you hate it, everybody hates it and yet it keeps coming. It's not as if anybody fires up their e-mail program to see what the latest get-rich-quick scam, I mean scheme, is. Still, spam fills our mailboxes. For the uninitiated, "spam" is unsolicited, commercial e-mail. Spam is the bane of Internet e-mail users. It's like a disease that you can't cure.

It's like junk mail that comes with postage due. It's "postage due" in many senses including that some people pay for Internet access by the minute and thus pay to receive spam. It's also "postage due" if you retrieve e-mail from out of town because then you're often paying long distance telephone charges based on time. If you're like me and you always have e-mail running in the background while you work, it also interrupts your work when you hear your "new mail" message.

There's proposed legislation at the state and federal levels to help alleviate the problem, but still the reality remains mailboxes filled with spam. I have a simple solution. Let's make it illegal.

Yes, I know that it's easier said than done. I know that enforcement will be difficult. I know that my proposal has its problems and weaknesses. I know that there are First Amendment implications. I know all this and more. Still, my starting point is that spam should be illegal.

Several years ago, Congress made junk faxes illegal. That law makes it illegal "to use any telephone facsimile machine, computer or other device to send an unsolicited advertisement to a telephone facsimile machine." Even after this law, do I still get junk faxes? Yes, I do. Do I get as many as I did before we made them illegal? No, I do not. Did the junk fax law help? I think that it did.

I think that we should go the same route with spam. Let's not regulate it. Let's eliminate it.

Current Proposals

I've found at least 16 states that have either enacted spam legislation or, at least, have had bills introduced to address the problem. Some typical examples include bills in Alaska, Wisconsin and Maryland. A proposal in Alaska would require spam to be clearly identifiable as an advertisement, identify the sender and include opt-out instructions. While not as strong as my proposal, I'd take it if it were all that I could get.

By requiring clear identification as an advertisement, it helps the filtering function in advanced e-mail software filter out the spam. If we go with this sort of proposal, I'd like to see the subject line of every spam start with something like "**&**." This sort of legislatively-mandated subject line would make it easy for Internet service provider (ISP) software to filter out spam before it's even sent to you. Anytime the software sees "**&**, it trashes the spam if you specifically request that service. You could also choose to let your ISP send it to you and then have your own software filter it to a "spam" holding cell or your own e-mail trash bin.

A Wisconsin proposal took the approach of extending the ban on unsolicited faxes. Unfortunately, it failed to pass the Wisconsin Senate. A Maryland bill would have prohibited spam, but it died in committee.

At the federal level, there are a number of proposals floating around. A bill introduced in the United States Senate, sponsored by Senator Murkowski, would require all spam to contain the name, address, e-mail address and telephone number of the sender. It would also require spammers to honor requests to be removed from the mailing list.

The problem with this bill is that it clearly legalizes spam. It's an endorsement. While its regulatory approach is better than nothing, it still means that you get spam.

Under my proposal, should anyone really want to get spam for some perverse reason, I'm sure that marketers will create lists where they can register you to receive unsolicited e-mail. Those who want to get spam will have a choice and I'll have mine. I choose not to receive this junk.

It's time for some federal legislation. The spam problem just keeps getting worse and it will continue to get worse until Congress acts.

Spam - The Bane of the Internet is republished from
Mark Grossman
Mark Grossman