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Online shoppers may get unexpected packages: Spam

January 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:14 p.m. EDT (1414 GMT)

by Tom Diederich

SAN FRANCISCO (IDG) -- Rookie online shoppers may have a dubious rite of passage to look forward to this year, a former high-ranking White House adviser warned here yesterday.

"I can guarantee you that every single American who bought something online over Christmas and had never bought anything online before will most likely get spammed," said Christine Varney, former head of the Federal Trade Commission, at she spoke before participants of the Internet Content Coalition's second annual forum here.

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Varney, who was the Clinton administration's leading official on a wide variety of Internet-related issues until she resigned last August, urged the audience -- many of whom were Internet content providers -- to flag unsolicited commercial E-mail as a high-priority issue.

Unless the industry takes a proactive stance on spam and other Internet issues, such as privacy, she said, the resulting public backlash could force Congress and the legislative bodies of other governments to step in with their own solutions.

"The policy debates in Washington are largely framed by those older, existing trade associations that are used to doing business in old mediums," Varney said. "They want to bring that paradigm forward because they don't quite understand that the Internet is not your father's Buick. It's another reason why companies like you all have to be involved in the policy debate, because if the spam debate is driven by spammers, you are not going to like the results."

Varney also predicted that spam-related bills would hit Capitol Hill this year. "There are free-speech issues surrounding spam, there are protected-speech and commercial-speech issues, and I think we're going to see Congress reengage on spam this year," she said.

The only way to prevent restrictive government interference is for the Internet industry to "get to the table early," she added. "Absent that, you're going to have legislation, which in my view could be fairly draconian."

The idea of self-regulation -- where industry, not the government, hammers out a wide range of Internet-related ground rules -- was also promulgated by Ira Magaziner, who coordinated the government's electronic-commerce strategy as President Clinton's senior policy development adviser from January 1993 until last month. Magaziner is now a consultant in Quincy, Mass.

"Looking ahead, the next year or two will be crucial in determining whether the Internet remains a free medium or whether it becomes a medium where governments cannot resist regulating it," Magaziner said.

"We really are on the threshold of a revolution which is at least as significant as the industrial revolution was in both its social impact and its economic potential," he added.

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