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Put a Tight Leash on Spammers ...

August 15, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.

Spam has been a part of our lives for years. But lately, the scourge of unsolicited commercial e-mail, or UCE as it is known among activists and the organized fed-up, has reached epidemic proportions--and we, the afflicted, are starting to lose it. Why has it gotten so much worse, and what can we do about it?

Filtering software isn't working. We still make the daily plod through the subject column of our e-mail inboxes, holding down the Control key as we mark the offending reams of junk missives for deletion. Inevitably a bona fide hotel or flight confirmation doesn't get through, and a lot of shrapnel does. Such is the peril of shoveling the schlock that accounts for 85% of what lands in our inboxes and, what's worse, clogs Internet service providers to the point of lethargy or even paralysis.

Anti-spam watchdog groups have confirmed what anyone with an e-mail account knows: The problem has gotten exponentially worse in the last year, not only because spammers are finding new and ever more infuriating ways to circumvent software programs designed to thwart them but because there are simply so many more spammers at work today than there were a year ago.

Why? Conspiracy theorists will tell you that it's Al Qaeda et al kicking up their latest crypto-weapon against us--cyber-terror. But, says John Mozena of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, or CAUCE, there's a more likely explanation.

"It has to do, in part, with the poor state of the economy. Most people who have legitimate, well-paying jobs don't spam. What's more, the people who are spamming now usually have a degree of technical expertise that would suggest they were probably working for tech companies a year or two ago."

Although some of this spam is legitimate commercial solicitation, Mozena's group estimates that 80% of spammers are just trying to get your financial information--credit card or bank account numbers--to defraud you.

"Postage" is free; the time and energy entailed in mass-mailing an ad are minimal; and the list of balding, impotent, genitally challenged, Britney Spears-obsessed, chronically indebted suckers is potentially endless. It takes only one trusting person to part with his or her credit card information to make the scam worthwhile. So what to do, especially since the software that's designed to protect us is still full of loopholes?

The "spam wars of the past five years," as Mozena calls them, have driven hordes of otherwise apathetic folk to badger their congresspeople to do something to staunch the ever-rising flood of junk swamping their computers. All of us should join in the cacophony of complaint. As yet, no federal law exists to combat the problem, though this May the Senate Commerce Committee, by unanimous vote, sent the so-called "Can Spam Act" to the Senate floor for consideration.

Recently, the European Union Parliament managed to pass what spam busters consider the most effective UCE directive to date. It stipulates that by the end of 2003, European Union countries must pass laws prohibiting spammers from sending UCEs to anyone with whom they do not have a preexisting business relationship.

According to Mozena, a similar law is unlikely to make its way here any time soon. "The marketing industry lobby in the U.S. is far too powerful to even get a hearing on [such a] bill over here."

Certainly not without public pressure. For the most part, laws like those proposed in Europe would work. Some of the most artful globe-trotting spammers would still slip past, but severe penalties would snare those most responsible for the current epidemic, making spamming less and less attractive to opportunistic amateurs in the U.S., from whom, experts agree, most spam originates.

Relying on software will not deflect the current onslaught. We must go to the source. If you want a cleaner inbox, there's only one thing to do: Send a daily spam of your own to your senator, and he or she is bound to get the message.

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