Spam Today, Mail Tomorrow?

Use your powers for good, not evil…well, you can use them for evil if you want, but it voids your warranty. — unknown Internet sage

When I first read about the California antispam law that is the subject of Paul Miller’s cover story this month, my blood pressure rose. If Joe’s Widgets Catalog sends an e-mail to a name rented from Jill’s Flanges, Joe could be fined up to $1 million because the name in question had opted in to receive e-mail offers but not specifically e-mail from Joe’s catalog.

The California legislature, in effect, is outlawing a prospecting tool that, given its relatively low cost, is especially useful for smaller companies. And largely because some folks don’t like having to delete several scores of spam from their e-mailboxes every day. Geez. Don’t lawmakers have more important things to do — providing affordable healthcare to the working poor, for instance?

My initial reaction to the Senate’s 97-0 approval of the Can-Spam Act in late October was the same: If legislators are hell-bent on restricting and outlawing every modern-day advertising-tool-slash-annoyance, what’s next? Online pop-up ads? Magazine blow-in cards? Those mattress commercials in which Lindsay Wagner complains about how her busy life makes it tough to get a good night’s sleep?

Or, most worrying, unsolicited postal mail — you know, catalogs and the like?

Then I read some of the Senate testimony. Several small-business owners described how an avalanche of spam overwhelmed their networks and made it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to single out the legitimate customer e-mails — to the point that their businesses were wounded or destroyed.

“Kingpin spammers who send out e-mail by the millions are threatening to drown the Internet in a sea of trash, and the American people want it stopped,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) cosponsored the Can-Spam bill.

Many of Can-Spam’s proposals make sense: Prohibit false or misleading message lines and return addresses. Mandate an opt-out mechanism. Require senders to include their physical address within their e-mail message. What’s more, the passage of Can-Spam would overrule more-onerous state laws, such as California’s.

But a provision added to Can-Spam by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) would allow the Federal Trade Commission to implement a do-not-spam list, similar to its do-not-call list. From there it’s only a matter of time till some legislator proposes a do-not-mail registry.

Years ago, one of my teachers gave us a take-home test for which we could use reference materials. But after several kids copied their answers almost verbatim from the encyclopedia, she never allowed us another take-home test. A few kids abused the privilege and spoiled it for the rest of us.

Such seems to be the case with commercial e-mail. We need to ensure the same doesn’t happen with commercial postal mail.

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