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THE CUTTING EDGE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL
AKST

Junk Mail: The Battle Continues

May 27, 1996|DANIEL AKST

From Deland, Fla., there comes an offer to be the first in my area to start a business installing daytime running lights on cars. From Jeffrey and Jennifer Garson Shapiro, whoever they are, there's a solicitation for Fibrenet, which promises to bind with fat in my digestive system and carry it harmlessly out to sea. (The secret is the positive ionic charge.) The folks from Investor Dynamics Corp., meanwhile, want me to know that "PEOPLE ARE LYING TO YOU AND IT'S COSTING YOU A FORTUNE!"

Well, that's no news to me. These and many similarly dispiriting offers are cropping up more and more frequently in my e-mail, and the whole thing is starting to get me down.

Six months ago, I wrote a column about the growing problem of junk e-mail, which wastes people's time and Internet resources. Since then, the problem has, well, grown. I used to get junk e-mail only occasionally, and last time I wrote about this, I focused on someone who prided himself on being known as the Spam King ("spam" being the term for sending out lots of unsolicited messages this way) precisely because he was so unusual.

Now, between my accounts on CompuServe, AT&T and so forth, I get about one piece of junk mail a day, and the volume seems to be picking up, suggesting that this stuff will very soon cost all of us a fortune.

Another reason junk e-mail gets me down is that it seems to hold some special attraction for schlockmeisters. The junk e-mail I get is marked by subject lines like Fantastic Income Opportunity!, exhortations to BE YOUR OWN BOSS! and enticements to enlist in various "multilevel marketing" schemes. I have it on good evidence that junk e-mailers use special cut-rate keyboards with exclamation points where the period ought to be.

Junk e-mailers get e-mail addresses from a variety of sources. For instance, they comb postings to Usenet newsgroups, CompuServe forums, America Online message boards and so forth.

Theoretically, this should make it possible for Al's Discount Footwear to discover that I have big feet--perhaps I'm a member of Big Foot-L or some such Internet mailing list--and then e-mail me a discount offer for sneakers. But the junk mail I get, reflecting the complete lack of cost to the sender, is much more scattershot, and often it's hard even to parse out exactly what's being sold.

Man, are these offers tempting. Recently my e-mail inbox contained a spiel about buying micro-cap stocks on the Alberta Stock Exchange. Apparently I can get rich this way! Since then I've invested all my retirement savings in Alberta-listed securities, so it's just a matter of time before I cash in! And I thought they only sold cattle!

It's awfully difficult to stop this onslaught. Some junk mailers let you reply with "remove" to get off their list. But sometimes there's no such provision, and I'm afraid soon I'll be spending all morning sending "remove" messages. Some unscrupulous mass mailers close an account as soon as a mailing is finished, and though many Internet service providers will close accounts used by junk mailers (for fear of mail bomb vigilantes), I've heard that at least one rogue ISP offers accounts specifically for this purpose.

Unfortunately, the two privacy organizations that in my last column vowed to launch a campaign to eradicate junk e-mail haven't done so. The separate plans, from Private Citizen Inc. in Naperville, Ill., and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, aimed for some kind of central registry; send junk to someone listed in the registry and you owe the recipient money for his or her time. Private Citizen has used the strategy with some success against paper junk mail.

As I said last time around, the problem of junk e-mail is the classic problem of the commons. It's in everyone's personal interest to grab as much as possible, but of course if everyone did just that, there'd be no commons left, and then all would suffer. Like polluting the air, emitting junk e-mail costs the sender next to nothing but imposes costs on everyone else. And the more advertisers adopt this tactic, the greater the social costs for Internet users in general.

(Junk snail mail, which I also hate, is at least constrained by the cost of paper, printing and postage. By contrast, it costs little more to e-mail a million people than to e-mail a dozen.)

I've come to believe that in a selfish society, and in a medium as anonymous as the Internet can be, the commons must be protected by government. What's needed is a law, if not barring junk e-mail, at least requiring it to be labeled in such a way that it can be easily filtered or blocked.

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