Are We Ready To Throw Spammers in the Slammer?

It’s getting crowded in here. The U.S. Congress is filling up with laws designed to fight spam, and the jail holding mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, who’s serving a 12-year sentence for racketeering in New York, soon could be filling up with spammers. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) has introduced legislation that would make sending unwanted mass e-mail a racketeering offense, up there with the numbers game and extortion, and open to fines and jail time under the RICO act that landed Gigante in prison.

In fact, there are so many anti-spam acts flying around Washington that spamerati — groups and private citizens who opine or blog on the matter — are cautioning the bills could have unintended and unfortunate consequences, including blocking political speech while letting legitimate commercial establishments effectively spam with impunity. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE), a citizens group, recently sent an open letter to Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana) protesting the terms of his proposed CAN SPAM act, saying it will do nothing to stem the tide of spam and could undermine the First Amendment.

All of this raises the question: Do we really know who the spammers are? Based on lawsuits by AOL and others naming specific individuals and establishments, the answer seems to be, largely, yes. The larger issue is how we should act on that knowledge.

Fine Line

Despite the seemingly anonymous quality of the junk that arrives in your inbox, we know quite a bit about those who spam. The header of any given e-mail message contains information about where that particular message originated. Your ISP, or your e-mail provider if you use a free service like Hotmail or Yahoo, knows even more. Large Internet service providers, such as MCI (formerly Worldcom) and AT&T, can track whether certain parties are sending bulk e-mail, whether e-mail is being forwarded from an illegitimate user account, or whether an e-mail server on a home machine is illegally communicating with the ISP’s machines to send large amounts of mail. That information can be sliced and diced, and patterns can be divined.

The question then becomes what to do next. If, as many contend, a few large providers are responsible for the majority of spam, the answer might be as simple as prosecuting those entities and effectively forcing them out of operation. If spam originators are clients of AOL or another large ISP, it probably means putting pressure on large service providers to discipline those customers or cut them off entirely.

Then there is the gray area. One of CAUCE’s arguments is that even if anti-spam laws are passed, some legitimate outfits that spam will continue to do so with impunity because, for one thing, they own the pipes. If the Microsoft Network sends out what amounts to an advertisement to users of its service, can those users really bring any legitimate claim against MSN? CAUCE argues that present legislation would allow such annoying but legitimate infarctions.

The Spam Police

Another factor is that network officials have for some time worried about abuses of centralized Internet control. Each attempt by an ISP to track and punish users for distributing content risks harming the Net as an open communications medium. Even inadvertent blocking of content happens on a daily basis.

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from the editor of a political Web site that has been a vocal critic of the U.S. government and its policies. The editor told me by phone that several times in the past three months, registered users had not received the site’s e-mail mailing. Several times he had contacted AOL, which apologized profusely and fixed the problem, only for it to crop up again days later. MSN’s Hotmail and Yahoo provided no explanations for apparently dropping the group’s messages for days or even weeks at a time.

I don’t think there’s any scandal here, but the point is that even well-intended bulk-mail filtering has the ability to shut down legitimate organizations communicating with their constituencies. An ISP with lax ethics conceivably could target organizations it wished to block.

Big Brother Future?

The folks at CAUCE believe an opt-in policy should be mandatory, allowing users to specifically state from whom they wish to receive content. Theoretically, such a strategy might shut out both the cowardly spammers and the respectable organizations whose newsletters nonetheless amount to harassment, while protecting groups whose users have specifically requested e-mail.

It sounds like a sensible plan, but I fear the actual course of events will result in greater crackdowns on individual sources of spam by ISPs and greater centralized policing of e-mail. That could be a bad thing if it starts to endanger the freewheeling nature of e-mail and the Internet at large.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

1 Comment

  • The biggest problem with SPAM is they eat up the bandwidth, causing the rest of us to have to pay much higher prices for broadband. The same is true of those POP-UP adds, which also eat up your computer disk space. What gives anyone the right to launch a program on my computer? THAT IS HACKING! Don’t we put kids who launch programs on our computer–like virus–in jail? I have a modem and simply have to turn it off some times to stop the POP-UPS. I never go back to one of those sites.
    This BS about free advertising has to stop. At least with my regular snail mail they have to print the garbage and pay postage. So I think we need some charges for both these situations.
    Because of this Microsoft servers don’t have profiling, you can block the stuff. I own my hard drive and computer. I do the work on this machine when I surf the net. Why should anyone have the right to use MY TOOLS and resources for their profit? What this is akin to is absolute theft. It’s like having the postal junk mail person demanding to use your printer and ink for their advertising. They are the ones who should be lobbying DC–Albertson, Safeway and Wal-Mart… There is no real difference. Yes, throw them in jail. I say get the CEO at Wal-Mart in on this! 🙂 By the way, boys, Wal-Mart’s success was due to a woman. What we need is a woman like Jeanne Jackson again. Too bad she stepped down.
    Recently, my AT&T was bought by Comcast. I thought good, I’m going to have a new IP address and who ever is passing my e-mail address of will no longer know what it is. I was informed by Comcast that all my e-mail will be forwarded as if this was a feature. I asked what if I canceled the account and reopened a new one. I have to pay all over again. Seems to me that Comcast, whose home page looks like a SPAM and Microsoft who has a $1 billion stake in it are really supporting this junk mail. That is why I’m considering moving to another local provider with a Unix or Linux server. AND my next computer is going to run Linux for the same reason. I bet if Americans knew that the biggest advantage to Linux was the ability to block as much as 95% of this stuff and to change your account on the fly, they would be going with Lindows too. When HP refused to provide drivers for my USB port and audio for Linux I decided I wouldn’t be going back to them either.
    Ghost Riders In The Sky… 🙂 That is my theme song for Microsoft’s Longhorn project. You know a dead cow song. I remember locally when Microsoft first got involved in the Internet. The first question they had for the consultant was how they could forge e-mail. Perhaps someone should do an interview with Jeff Raikes. 🙂 He has just a little bit to do with that Marketing group…. Gates didn’t want to get into the Internet… but Allchin has a PH.D…. We should interview him too… Ph.D. Piled Higher and Deeper?
    Come on Billy. Quit and let’s do my Venus project. We can use Linux! The nerds will love you and the apps will fly like those cows up in the sky.
    http://www.geocities.com/redmondrose Jpony~

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