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Cyberculture | THE SCENE / INTERNET WORLD

Anyone for a Spam Debate? Hello?

March 16, 1998|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When technology junkies die, they should hope to end up at a place like Spring Internet World.

With two sprawling product-filled halls, scores of conference sessions and celebrity appearances by the likes of high-tech guru Stewart Alsop and Yahoo's Jerry Yang, nearly everything an Internet aficionado might want could be found during the event held last week at the Los Angeles Convention Center, sponsored by Mecklermedia Corp. of Westport, Conn.

(Unfortunately, I-World also featured a few things attendees could just as well have done without, including parking and registration areas that required as much patience as downloading a graphics-rich Web site with a 14.4-kbps modem.)

The vast array of choices might explain why fewer than 50 people showed up Wednesday for the much-hyped "Great Spam Debate," since few things make Netizens' blood boil like junk e-mail.

Spammer extraordinaire Sanford Wallace, president of the notorious Cyber Promotions, squared off against Jason Catlett, the mild-mannered founder of Junkbusters, whose goal is to help people enforce their right to be left alone.

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Although originally scheduled to appear in person, Wallace participated by phone from the East Coast, citing "security reasons." Debate organizers plastered his image on a movie screen instead.

"I feel like I'm about 3,000 miles away from danger," Wallace said.

Catlett opened the debate by citing the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights as just one legal protection against unwanted commercial e-mail. Then he warned of the day--presumably in the not-too-distant future--when the unchecked proliferation of spam forces people to abandon e-mail altogether.

That prompted moderator Andrew Kantor, editor in chief of InternetShopper.com, to ask Wallace, "Are you trying to make the world uninhabitable for humans?"

Despite that and other inflammatory questions from Kantor, Wallace and Catlett actually agreed on many issues. They concurred that most spamming is done by scam artists hawking bogus get-rich-quick deals and that existing laws should be enforced more rigorously to put them out of business. They even shared the view that new laws are more likely to make the problem worse, not better.

"I actually wouldn't want to live in a world where it's not possible to spam," said Catlett. "The ability to send a message to many people you don't know is wonderful."

A meeting Thursday about the future of Internet governance drew a crowd heavy with Silicon Valley types eager to learn how to get lawmakers to leave them alone. Andy Sernovitz, president of the Washington-based Assn. for Interactive Media, suggested they offer to build Web pages for their congressmen.

Don Telage, senior vice president of Network Solutions, the Herndon, Va.-based firm that registers domain names, tried to persuade his audience to show as much interest in the future of the Internet, which is in the midst of a transformation from an academic to a commercial network.

He is baffled by the indifference of top Silicon Valley executives, he said, who are obsessed with quarterly profit targets and killing their competitors.

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Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan crashed one of the show's keynote addresses Thursday to plug the region's newly named "Digital Coast" multimedia-business cluster.

But his audience was clearly skeptical of his claim, backed by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., that Southern California employs more people in the new-media industry than Silicon Valley and New York's Silicon Alley combined.

Alsop, the venture capitalist and influential technology writer, was openly doubtful about Riordan's boasts, especially his oft-repeated declaration that Los Angeles is the birthplace of the Internet. (In fact, the Internet's predecessor, Arpanet, was launched with an exchange of messages between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in 1969.)

But Alsop had even more fun dissing Bill Gates, Microsoft's powerful chairman and America's richest man.

"I hate Windows," he said as the crowd erupted in cheers. "Every time I turn on my PC, it makes my skin crawl."

On the trade show floor, eSafe Technologies won unofficial top honors for the sexiest promotional giveaway.

The company, which makes software to ward off computer viruses, gave out matchbook-style packets claiming to contain "complete Internet protection." Inside: a condom.

Ever mindful of potential liability problems, the packet also noted that the condom is for promotional use only, making sure to add that "eSafe Technologies Inc. is not liable for any consequences that may occur from actual usage."

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Times staff writers Elizabeth Douglass and Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.

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