No one will admit to liking spam — the canned pseudo-meat or the unsolicited e-mail that bears its name. But despite the current efforts of governments in North America and Europe to get it back into the can, spam is destined to be, and should be, a fact of Internet life — just like junk mail is in the real world.
Spam legislation is quickly moving forward, but it is important not to lose sight of the real issues. The question should not be whether spamming can be effectively eliminated, or how governments can shield people from unwanted advertisements. It can’t and they shouldn’t. The question should be: How can regulators empower consumers to protect themselves?
Anti-Spam a Slam Dunk
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act, aimed at holding marketers accountable for unwanted e-mail. A noble objective.
What the House bill does is make spammers more responsive to recipients who don’t want to get their e-mail by requiring them to include instructions on how to opt out of future messages. Every computer user knows the frustration of trying to get his or her name off a spammer’s list, only to find that the incoming e-mails won’t accept replies and the senders can’t be found anywhere online.
But as usual, a nugget of sound policy is threatening to snowball into an avalanche of rhetoric. Politicians are now spouting eagerly about eliminating spam and making the Internet safe — a fantasy that the legislation cannot possibly achieve.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has extended the reach of a telecommunications law — meant to protect consumers from unwanted phone calls — to include e-mail. In essence, the law now bans spam.
No doubt some advocates would like to bring the same type of measure to the United States. But individual U.S. states that have tried to put limitations on e-mail have found themselves up against judges who declared their rules unconstitutional. The restrictions amounted to prior restraint of free speech, some jurists have said.
Even more worrisome than the constitutional issue is the shift of responsibility implicit in the European plan. It seems to me that it goes too far in protecting the rights of consumers. While well intentioned, it actually coddles Internet users, treating them as children who are incapable of making their own decisions.
But just as putting a mailbox up by the side of the road exposes us to countless unwanted pieces of junk mail, setting up an electronic mailbox carries the same risks and responsibilities.
If you don’t want that ‘junk’ e-mail, you are hardly defenseless. In fact, it is probably easier and faster to weed the unwanted mail out of your Internet mailbox than it is to keep it out of your snail mail. Many access providers and online services offer filters designed to fend off unwanted messages. For example, a program called “SpamCop” automatically sends a nasty, threatening message to spammers.
I realize that volume remains a big problem, with online services and networks bearing a sizeable cost for carrying spam to consumers. But the solution to that problem is simple enough: Charge spammers for every e-mail they send.
More Spam, Please
While no one will admit to liking it, unsolicited commercial e-mail obviously works. True, companies use it because it is as close to free as you can get in the marketing world, but serious marketers would willingly pay a marginal toll to cover the burden of delivering e-mail to unwitting recipients.
So far, few businesses or individuals have stood up in defense of spam, for obvious reasons. But there are times when it makes sense. Let’s say a Web surfer registers at a site in order to gain access to some premium content. The resulting e-mail offering monthly access or additional services might not have been requested, but it is hardly out of left field. That business has good reason to hope that such a consumer might be interested in further contact.
Reputable companies already follow the guidelines. Get an e-mail from Amazon and the opt-out link is prominently displayed. Forcing the less savory spammers to follow suit is a good idea. But going too much farther would amount to creating an artificial world free of commercial solicitation. Government’s job is not to protect its citizens from every potential inconvenience. Big brother, please — I’d rather do it myself.