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spam laws

Congress is back in session after its summer break and all sorts of issues are on the table, including main dishes like the energy bill and prescription drug benefits. Spam will probably also make an appearance on the menu, as side dish most likely, but Congress will probably at least push it around the plate a bit. Of course, we’re not talking about canned meat products. We’re talking about junk email. There are a number of anti-spam bills floating around the Capitol. Greg Dahlmann takes a look at how effective they might be. (originally aired September 10, 2003)
6:42 | listen: RealAudio · mp3

Spam is a thoroughly modern problem. Sure, junk mail has been around for years... but spam highlights the unfortunate side-effects of our interconnected world... mainly that one guy sitting in his boxers virtually anywhere can leverage the Internet to annoy the spit out of literally millions of people. So, what good is one spam law, in one country really going to do?

{LM: gotta start somewhere} :03
“There is some truth to that, but you gotta start somewhere.”

Louis Mastria is with the Direct Marketing Association... which represents businesses that sell things over the phone, through the mail, on TV and over the Internet. As tough a challenge as it might be... he says we need a spam law because the electronic junk is wrecking email for anyone who wants to use it for legitimate personal or economic reasons.

{LM: wrecking email} :18
“It forces consumers to sort of throw up their hands and say, well, I’m just going to lump everything together and dump it. And that’s not good for the consumer and not good for the marketer because there could be very legitimate offers in there that the consumer might be interested in, but they’re just being thrown away because of the volume they have to go through to get to them.”

It would seem that Congress is listening to the complaints about spam. Politicians are tossing around a wide range of potential legislative fixes for the problem. A sampling of the provisions...
-a requirement that each piece of commercial email include a link people can click on to opt out of future mailings
-a standard method for labeling commercial email
-new rules that would make it easier to sue spammers
-and even a Do Not Spam registry along the lines of the national Do Not Call list that soon takes effect

It all sounds like a good start, right?

{HM: will not solve problem 1} :06
“No spam bill is likely to solve or even significantly reduce the spam problem.”

Hanah Metchis is a research analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute... a think-tank that promotes free markets and small government.

{HM: will not solve problem 2} :33
“That’s because a lot of spam is already illegal under either false advertising laws, some of it’s outright fraudulent and a lot of it also illegal under state anti-spam laws. But those laws are very rarely enforced partly because it’s hard to track down a spammer when they’re trying to stay anonymous and the FTC and state agencies have a lot of other priorities and they’re not really serious about going after spam.”

Hanah Metchis – and others – say that Congress could actually makes things worse here if it sets up the wrong sort of spam law. For example... she points to the possible Do Not Spam registry. What could be erected as an obstacle to junk email could end up being a boost to spammers.

{HM: DNE registry} :24
“Because it’s a guaranteed list of addresses that work and that people actually read. And even if it’s encrypted there’s going to be some way they’ll get to it because the list will have to be available in some way to people sending out unsolicited email in order to not send email to people on the list. And there will definitely be some way of breaking into it and finding out what the addresses are.”

Even some organizations in favor of anti-spam laws are skeptical about a Do Not Spam list because... technical concerns aside... they say spammers don’t run the kind of businesses that will respect the list.

O-K, so if a federal law isn’t the answer to damming the flood of junk into our inboxes... what then? Well, computer technology conceived spam and now many people say that same technology will kill it. The hope of technocrats around the world rests with something called Bayesian filtering... a way of using statistical analysis to identify spam.

Computer programmer Paul Graham works on Bayesian filters and wrote the widely-linked essay “A Plan for Spam.” Graham says the only way of beating a Bayesian filter is to make spam read like the kind of email you might dash off to a friend. And that can be tricky.

{PG: has to look normal} :26
“It’s very, very hard to send someone an email advertising, you know, body modification or improvement... or mortgages without actually mentioning the kinds of words people use in the spam about mortgages. So it requires spammers to be clever and subtle and that I don’t think they are. So I think it’s going to make their lives much more difficult.”

Paul Graham says Bayesian filters can be terrifically effective... in many cases stopping 98 or 99 percent of spam. But even a tech-believer like Graham can see a role for federal law in stopping the junk. He says it’s not that he thinks a law will stop spam... but like older blunt filters that stop anything with the word Viagra in it... a law would be one more hurdle.

{PG: multiple obstacles} :11
“If there were just a single target that spammers had to get around, then they’d work really hard to get around it. But if there are 20 different things they have to think about... it makes their lives very difficult.”

There seems to be consensus on this idea that the ultimate solution to spam is not one fix... but a whole group of them working to plug different holes. For example... a federal spam law may not deter the hardcore spammer working out of Russia... but Lydia Leong – an analyst with tech research firm Gartner – says that doesn’t mean the law won’t have an effect.

{LL: make little guys think} :15
“It will make it more difficult to spam and it may discourage some of the little spammers – the entrepreneurial spammers who are making a little money on the side – when it becomes illegal, some of those guys may think twice.”

Leong says a spam law would be especially helpful if it made it easier for internet service providers to sue spammers because early legal efforts by I-S-P’s have been successful in many cases. But she says on the whole, a spam law is really only one small part of the puzzle... especially without international cooperation to back it up.

Not that you’ll be hearing that sort of talk from politicans. Of course, we’re heading into a presidential election year and the political parties are shining their lists of accomplishments. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Hanah Metchis points out... this is a feel-good issue... and whether a spam law makes a difference is almost beside the point for many politicians.

{HM: feel good bill} :15
“You can say, ‘I voted in favor the anti-spam act of 2003 and I’ve done something good for constituents’ and write back home about it... even though it hasn’t really solved the problem at all.”

The upcoming year could be the turning point for spam. Bayesian filtering has made its way in many popular email programs – even AOL. If better filters and government attention don’t make a difference... we may be stuck with spam on the menu for a long time.

For the Law Show... I’m Greg Dahlmann.



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