Law, Order, and Spam

My last column generated some passionate reader feedback. I had declared I was burnt out on the spam topic and needed a break. Yet writing that column and reading your feedback renewed my interest.

Readers fall in two camps when it comes to spam. They either hate it or are indifferent. I’ve got no concerns about those who hate spam and decide to enter into the war, as long as they stay within the law when waging their battles.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a good article last week about Web vigilantes who take it upon themselves to track down and harass spammers via a variety of mischievous, and sometimes illegal, tactics. As an example, the article told of one alleged spammer who arrived at his office one morning to find every phone ringing repeatedly. He answered, but nobody was at the other end of the line. When he replaced the handset on the receiver, the phone immediately began to ring again. The phone system was hacked by anti-spam vigilantes.

Though I find the story amusing, there’s danger when citizens take it upon themselves to become judge, jury, and executioner. How severely would your business be impacted if a group of vigilantes started flaming you because they decided you were a spammer? Despite a rash of attorney jokes circulating in our society, we have a wonderful justice system in the United States. We must make use of it to settle our disputes.

Who Pays for Spam?

Readers who are indifferent to spam fall back on the tried-and-true defense that spam is no different from junk mail delivered by the US Postal Service (USPS). This is a common misunderstanding. The difference between spam and junk mail is where costs are borne. A direct marketer behind junk mail pays the USPS to deliver each piece, albeit typically a discounted rate based on volume and delivery class. Therefore, the marketer bears the cost of the junk mail. No costs are borne by the post office or consumers.

Spammers bear little to no delivery costs. To initiate spam campaigns they typically use email broadcast vehicles that are incredibly inexpensive, often stolen ISP accounts and cheap spam delivery software. The true costs of spam are borne by ISPs.

ISPs must constantly increase available bandwidth and their number of email servers to ensure the flood of spam sent to their subscribers doesn’t crash their services. These incremental costs of doing business are passed to subscribers through increased monthly subscription rates. A recent Ferris study concludes ISPs spend between $5 and $20 per subscriber annually to combat spam. Not a huge amount, but money I’d rather not spend. After all, I receive absolutely no benefit from the spam email that money supports.

Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of AOL, in Senate testimony last week, proclaimed spam accounts for between 60 and 80 percent of all email delivered to AOL members. My jaw dropped when I read that number. Ostensibly, AOL could eliminate a minimum of 60 percent of its costs dedicated to email bandwidth and email servers if it could eradicate spam. Of course, there’s no guarantee AOL would pass those savings on to consumers.

Leonsis went on to say, “AOL estimates that the overall volume of spam is doubling at least every four to six months.” Enrique Salem, president of Brightmail, told the Senate spam accounts for 46 percent of all email messages, up from 7 percent in 2001.

Even John McCain felt obligated to chime in, saying, “E-mail messaging has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. The growing affliction of spam, however, may threaten all of this.” The point: Nothing we’ve done so far has stemmed the spam onslaught. Better solutions are needed. Fast.

Leonsis said it best, “There is no silver bullet. We’re in this together.” “We,” I believe, refers to business, consumers, and the government. It will take action on all three fronts to reverse the tidal wave.

Organizing the Triumvirate

Despite my diatribe last week against the “just say no” approach, I do believe consumers must educate one another about spam and encourage those around them not to buy from spammers. This alone will not solve the problem.

Businesses must continue to fight spam. Whether it’s ISPs building more sophisticated filtering software or startups dedicated to developing spam-blocking software, the business community can put up a strong frontline defense.

The final piece of this triumvirate is what’s been missing up to this point: government. Although 26 states have anti-spam legislation on the books, no federal anti-spam law exists. A federal law is needed to create a consistent, unified front against spam and its practitioners.

I’m Just a Bill

Sen. Charles Schumer introduced a bill to create a federal law against spam. It has inadequacies, but it would be a huge step forward in anti-spam government initiatives. Schumer’s legislation would:

  • Establish a national consumer do-not-spam registry, similar to state do-not-call lists that have successfully reduced the telemarketing calls households receive.

  • Require mandatory subject-line identification, including the label “ADV” in the subject line of all email that includes commercial content.
  • Require full discloser in email headers and addresses, ensuring the source and content of the message are accurate.
  • Provide unsubscribe mechanisms and enforce them, which would help end the practice (real or perceived) of using the unsubscribe process to validate live email addresses.
  • Ban automated email address harvesting.
  • Impose stiff penalties for noncompliance, including up to two years in prison and fines to be determined by the sentencing judge. Spammers would also be subject to civil penalties.

This bill is not without flaws. Specifically, it won’t prevent the truly bad guys from continuing to spam. It will not apply to spammers operating offshore. But we need to start somewhere. This bill is a start in the right direction.

More information about Schumer’s bill is on his Web site. Take a minute to review the proposal and, if you agree with his objectives, call or write your senator and ask him or her to support Schumer’s bill. If you have problems with Schumer’s proposal, write to him. Let him know how you feel it should be changed. If we’re going to slow the spread of spam, we need a federal law as an additional arrow in our quiver.

Don’t miss ClickZ’s Weblog Business Strategies in Boston, June 9-10.

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