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Dave Wilson

After Spam, Baloney to Swallow

March 22, 2001|Dave Wilson

The folks who bring you such e-mail favorites as "QUIT YOUR JOB TOMORROW" and "LOSE WEIGHT NOW" have suddenly noticed that lawmakers nationwide are considering new rules to protect privacy on the Internet. So Internet-related businesses have launched a frantic lobbying campaign to derail the train before it builds up a head of steam.

They say they don't need Washington or Sacramento or Bismarck telling them how to protect the consumers whose in-boxes they jam and whose Web-surfing habits they track. "Trust us," they say.

That's a little like trusting the fox in the henhouse because the industry had its chance. The Clinton administration gave everybody involved in the technology--from Internet service providers to software developers--years to clean up their act. Despite all the certification programs and carefully crafted public relations campaigns in which the titans of the Information Age piously declare they take privacy, safety and security very seriously, just open your e-mail in-box to see how seriously they actually take it.

Your life remains an open book to amoral and avaricious creeps. It's time for the government to step in.

State and federal regulators are mulling over requirements such as "opt in" programs, in which nothing can happen without a consumer's explicit consent. The industry wants to stick with the current system that employs things such as "opt out" mechanisms, which is an obfuscated way of saying they can do anything to consumers they want until individuals explicitly ask them to stop.

But opt-out is a crock, a scam, a deliberate attempt to make it seem that consumers have a choice when, in fact, we have no choice at all.

Nothing so symbolizes the duplicity that consumers have to endure in this arena than the spam industry. Spam is junk e-mail, messages sent out to every mailbox known to the spammer. Typically, these missives are for stuff that's just this side of legal, such as weight-control pills that won't shrink anything but your wallet, dubious business propositions and outright pyramid schemes. It's the sort of offers found in the classified section of second-tier magazines.

Much of this unsolicited dreck has, at the very end, a sentence or two apologizing for disturbing you. It also invites recipients to click on a link or send an e-mail to be taken off the list.

This is, of course--say it with me--a lie. In fact, the quickest way to get lots more spam is to follow those instructions.

People hate spam. Most of us delete this stuff without ever opening it. The spam industry knows this, which is why they often try to disguise their wares with subject lines that might encourage a naive user to open them, such as "Response to your inquiry" or "Final notice."

By taking the spammers up on the offer to remove you from the list, you are instead moving yourself way up on the list of the spammer's e-mail addresses. Your note asking for removal demonstrates not only that you opened the mail, but that you read it all the way to the end and responded.

The spam industry is built on selling other spammers lists of responsive marks, in part because so many people have simply abandoned e-mail addresses that were overflowing with spam. Because so many of the spam messages go to mailboxes that are never used, an address that the spam industry knows has a live human being behind it is quite valuable.

In its increasingly desperate attempts to track who does what to their wares, these fiends have taken to including "bugs" in their spam, little bits of computer code embedded in the message that will alert the sender when the spam has been opened and can even let the spammer peruse all sorts of information about you that's stored on your hard drive.

All this is made possible by the folks who have been "improving" our e-mail software so it can read the codes used on Web pages, known as HTML, which is what the bugs are based on.

What is the primary e-mail software used today? Outlook. Who makes it? Microsoft Corp. And who, you should not be surprised, is a key member of what is laughably called the Online Privacy Alliance?

Microsoft is in cahoots in this incredibly mislabeled endeavor with a bunch of others--including AOL Time Warner, IBM and AT&T--who don't want some pesky little law getting in the way of their attempts to suck up every fact they can find about you.

Their motive in this fight is not to protect consumer privacy but protect their own ability to make consumers' lives an open book.

Lest you think I'm being too harsh, let me point out that the Online Privacy Alliance is working hand in glove with the Direct Marketing Assn. on these issues.

There is a real and legitimate fear that lawmakers might impose regulations that simply worsen the situation.

But given the complete contempt that the industry demonstrates for the people who buy its products, we don't have a lot of choice.


Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.


* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T4

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