You are not alone: Spam continues to annoy everyone
August 14, 1998
by Roberta Furger
(IDG) -- It started as a trickle--an annoying solicitation that would appear in my in-box every now and then, mixed in with the memos from coworkers and lunch invitations from friends. Then, seemingly overnight, the trickle became a torrent. I found myself deleting five, six, sometimes a dozen messages a day from anonymous folks trying to sell green tea vitamin supplements or enticing me to invest in an alpaca ranch in South America.
Just about every man, woman, and child with an e-mail account has been the recipient of unsolicited commercial e-mail, commonly known as spam. The problem has reached such proportions that it's difficult to go anywhere these days without hearing someone bemoaning the steady barrage of electronic marketing pitches. And just about everybody -- from Internet service providers to state and federal government officials to Internet activists -- has joined the effort to put the brakes on what has rapidly become the scourge of the Internet.
A small but determined group of Netizens has been waging battle against e-mail marketers for years. They've collected lists of the most egregious offenders and posted them on newsgroups; they've lobbed mail bombs--e-mail messages that overwhelm a junk mailers' in-box; and they've created and distributed software designed to filter out unwanted mail.
Although the outcry against junk mailers has grown steadily louder, so far this mostly grassroots campaign has proved ineffective against the deluge of unsolicited e-mail.
Junk mail now accounts for an estimated 10 percent of all e-mail traffic, according to the Electronic Messaging Association. Spam fills our in-boxes and can slow Internet mail traffic to a crawl. It costs us time, as we're forced to either sort through the junk or figure out how to intercept it in transit. It costs us money: Consumers inevitably pay for the costs ISPs incur fighting the problem. Finally, junk e-mail violates every Internet user's privacy.
The politicos step in
After many delays, federal and state legislators have finally begun to take part in the battle against junk e-mail. This past spring, the U.S. Senate tacked an antispamming amendment onto a bill that prohibits certain practices by long-distance telephone companies. The amendment, a compromise between New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli and Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, would require that unsolicited commercial e-mail include the name, postal address, e-mail address, and phone number of the sender. It would also make junk e-mailers comply with all consumer requests to be removed from their lists. The Federal Trade Commission would be charged with investigating complaints against spammers, and authorized to fine violators up to $15,000. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.
The antispamming legislation has met with a mixed reaction--even from the loose coalition of groups fighting junk e-mail. The Center for Democracy and Technology, an online policy group in Washington, D.C., has called the Murkowski-Torricelli amendment a good first step. But others, including the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, have denounced the legislation as too soft on spammers. Instead, CAUCE supports a bill by Representative Chris Smith that would ban junk e-mail, much as junk faxes are now forbidden.
There's been a flurry of activity at the state level, too. Last spring, California's assembly passed a bill that lets an ISP sue anyone who sends unsolicited e-mail in violation of the ISP's stated policies. In addition, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, and Washington state have either adopted or are considering legislation that, like the Senate bill, would regulate junk e-mail. Thus far, only Maryland has enacted an outright ban.
As elected officials line up against spam, consumer protection agencies are, not surprisingly, also getting into the act. The FTC in particular has put thousands of suspect junk mailers--identified by the commission as potentially fraudulent-- on notice, advising them to clean up or close down their operations. Marketers who've been warned include those offering or propagating pyramid schemes and chain letters, deceptive diet and medical solicitations, credit repair scams, and guaranteed credit card solicitations.
Stemming the tide
Lawsuits and legislation are good first steps, but they tend to be reactive. They punish the most egregious transgressors, but do nothing to stop the seemingly relentless flow of junk e-mail clogging our in-boxes. Short of a total ban (which appears unlikely at the federal level), one of the most promising attempts at quelling the rising tide of spam comes from the source. ISPs and free e-mail services such as Juno and Hotmail are cracking down on the perpetrators among their subscribers and suing junk mailers who "forge" their addresses to avoid detection.
An increasing number of ISPs are adopting policies that ban the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail and are expelling any violators. Others provide software tools for customers interesting in weeding out junk mail. Some ISPs have recently gone one step further in their fight against spam by filtering clients' e-mail for them, discarding junk mail before it ever arrives in a customer's in-box. America Online, Concentric Network, Prodigy Internet, and Netcom have either started filtering customers' mail or plan to do so shortly.
Most ISPs filter spam based on the source -- effective if the e-mail is coming from a known junk mailer -- as well as by the quantity of messages received. A few, however, can also recognize and intercept spam based on message headers' similarity to previously filtered junk mail. Although some consumers cheer the move, the service puts ISPs in the sometimes uncomfortable position of deciding what's junk and what isn't.
You can take action!
Industry players and politicians are welcome foot soldiers in the battle against junk e-mail. But it's consumers who must continue to lead the charge. Here's what you can do to fight spam.
ENLIST YOUR SOFTWARE: E-mail programs like Eudora and Outlook Express let users designate certain types of messages to be deleted automatically (such as those including the phrase "get rich quick").
COMPLAIN: A site called Fight Spam on the Internet includes an excellent tutorial on how to complain to an ISP about spam. While you're firing off e-mails, make sure you send one to the FTC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GET INVOLVED: Let your state and federal elected officials know where you stand on proposed legislation. For an update on what's happening politically, check out the John Marshall Law School Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law site.
The time to act is now. It's not enough anymore to just delete the junk and hope for the best.
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