Fighting spam

Spam” – the term for junk e-mail – was coined after a Monty Python skit. But its effects aren’t nearly so funny. Real problems arise. Massive influxes of junk e-mail can and do shutdown entire networks. Typically spammers “spoof” operations, masking the true source of e-mails. Businesses spend $9 billion a year in a largely losing effort to combat spam. University technicians have implemented “Spam Assassin” in hopes of squelching the tide. America Online estimates 80 percent of its incoming email is spam, equaling nearly 2 billion messages. In response AOL, the world’s largest Internet service provider, filed a $10 million dollar lawsuit against spammers last week.

However, spammers will not be as easy to tackle as telemarketers, due to their sheer numbers and the global nature of the Internet. Many spammers operate from offshore facilities, which makes tracking them more difficult. Spammers, like viruses, are in a constant mode of change, often infiltrating unprotected computers and using their e-mail systems to disseminate messages. Blacklists are seldom capable of differentiating between spam and legitimate e-mail.

It’s also cheap. If one person out of 200,000 e-mails responds, spammers make money. Indeed, a fine line must be drawn between censorship and freedom from harassment. Spammers should be allowed to spam, but just as for telemarketing and mailed marketing schemes, legislation needs to be passed to protect consumers and their privacy. Acting now will expedite the long process of rules review to address loopholes that will undoubtedly arise.

In its crusade against spam, AOL is not entirely a sainted knight as they too are the target of worldwide campaign to end mass mailings. Numerous Web sites are devoted to ending AOL’s mass distributions of software. All irony aside, AOL’s efforts might come up short as have legal actions in Utah, California and Maine because there is an extreme dearth of Internet-related laws. As government has stepped in before, it must once again dictate the terms of Internet policy.

It wasn’t until 115 years after the invention of the first telephone that a nationwide do-not-call database was established. Hopefully, it will not take that long for legislators to realize the necessity of a national spam-me-not database.