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Archive for Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Swimming in e-mail spam

February 12, 2002

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— I arrive at my office, uncap my coffee, unwrap my bagel, open my e-mail and face the first searing public policy question of the day: "Do you want to watch teens make their first porn video?"

Ah yes, Good morning, Spam. Good morning, Spamerica. This charming greeting is followed by a medical offer of a guaranteed deal to "lose 12 pounds in 48 hours!" That is followed by other golden opportunities for 1) a "preapproved auto loan for up to $23,990"; 2) a nutritional supplement known as "horny goat weed"; 3) a cure for snoring; 4) a sure-fire stock pick; 5) a plea for "Uregent (sic) Help" for a Nigerian in political asylum; and 6) a "Valentine Must: Viagra Orders Made Easy."

By the time I get to the last shiny deal "Would you like to earn money while you sleep?" I have deleted as many of my own expletives as e-mails. Somewhere between the "hot girls and wild horses" there is, I am sure, a correspondent. But as I dump the junk, I remember how spam supposedly got its nickname from the famous Monty Python skit in which a poor couple's attempt to place their restaurant order is drowned out by a chorus of Vikings chanting "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM."

My spam, your spam, everyone's spam is nothing if not a growth industry. On average, 11 percent of all e-mails now are spam. The average e-mail user got 1,470 unsolicited commercial messages last year. At this rate we can expect as many as 3,800 apiece by 2005.

If you are above average a dubious distinction in this case and have a feeling that the volume has greatly increased since Sept. 11 and snail-mail anthrax, you're right. And this is not just because of the creep who sent his pitch out just hours after the terrorist attacks, "No terrorist here! Join our porn site!''

As Internet guru Esther Dyson says, "the magic of e-mail is that you can e-mail almost anyone. The tragedy is that almost anyone can e-mail you." Spam is now clogging the national e-mail box the way its namesake clogs the arteries.

What's a victim to do? "Meet Singles Just Like You''? "Save up to 70 Percent on Your Life Insurance"? This month the Federal Trade Commission announced a proposal to help rid us of our most frequent dining companions, the telemarketers, with a national "do not call" list. But there's no plan for a "do not e-mail" list.

Part of the problem with getting a lock on spam is that we have more cyber addresses than phone numbers. Moreover, the Internet is unregulated and worldwide. Ban spam here and it will arrive via Mexico, Taiwan or Minsk. Many spammers have already moved offshore.

In the name of self-defense, Internet service providers have filters. Some are as effective as containing water in your hands while others are as quirky as the AOL filter that bumped out Harvard's early acceptance letters. Meanwhile the most effective filter operations, notably Brightmail, are waging a 24/7 guerrilla war with ever-evolving spammers.

But the only thing as annoying as a spam attack is paying for self-defense. As Tom Geller, the executive director of the SpamCon Foundation, says, "I don't feel I should have to do any filtering. I don't want to pay for it. It's my computer. I shouldn't have to."

There are, not surprisingly, a host of schemes for fighting spam. My whimsical favorite is Esther Dyson's proposal to make any unwanted e-mailer pay for your attention. She fantasizes charging anywhere from a few cents for a small advertiser to $100 for an old boyfriend. But this plan is not, to put it mildly, ready for operation.

There are also about 18 states with anti-spam laws. In California this month, an appeals court upheld one law that makes spammers identify ads in the header rather than saying "Hi Sweetie" or "I checked this out!" And a Washington state citizen with the license plate NERDPOWR recently won four cases against misleading spammers.

Similar laws are wandering around Congress and the FTC has at least and at last said it will go after the real spam con artists. ("Please Help Buddhist Monasteries in Tibet!") But the real trick, says John Mozena of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail, is to give companies and Internet servers the right to post a no-trespassing sign.

Spam costs the spammer almost nothing. It costs the rest us time, money and irritation. My fantasy is to locate the spammers and subject them to endless telemarketing calls.

Ah, yes, I know. Somewhere in my delete file there is an honest and humble businessman. But if he's the one who offered me "Penis enhancement ... real science ... new pills," he'd better check his customer base.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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