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Taking a Bite Out of Spam

September 25, 2002

There's one simple reason why the volume of commercial junk mail known as spam is expected to increase more than fivefold over the next four years: It's cheaper than sand. For just $100, an advertiser can send out 50 million e-mail messages. Doing this by first-class mail would cost more than $18 million in postage alone.

Just one year ago, spam or bulk commercial e-mail made up about 8% of all e-mail traffic and was mostly sent by recognizable companies to willing recipients. Since then, however, spam has careened out of control, with automated Web site programs and unscrupulous and unreachable e-mail operators firing off unsolicited, often repugnant messages that may one day gridlock all Internet traffic.

Today, spam hogs about 40% of e-mail volume--exhausting computer hard drives, running up consumers' phone bills and exposing anyone using e-mail, including children, to unwanted pornography at its aberrant worst.

The Federal Trade Commission has been lamely stockpiling consumer complaints about spam in a database it calls "the refrigerator." It could do much more to unclutter America's e-mailboxes.

By clearly defining what types of spam should be illegal, the agency could slow the avalanche. And fines on those who keep sending it--mainly a handful of easy-to-target big players--could pay for better enforcement.

This month, the National Consumers League and other citizens groups petitioned the commission to issue a rule under which unsolicited commercial e-mail would be held deceptive and therefore unlawful if it misrepresented the subject, content or who sent it. And spammers would have to make it easy for people to get off their mailing lists.

Some large companies that send e-mail only to people who ask for it or at least let them easily get off e-mail lists (Charles Schwab and Procter & Gamble, for instance) object to bills pending in Congress that would sweepingly ban spam. Even such responsible e-mailers, however, have supported narrower regulations aimed at restricting unsolicited spam that is clearly fraudulent, deceptive or pornographic.

Opposition to the proposed FTC rule is therefore limited mostly to a small but powerful group of bulk e-mailers who speciously argue that any restrictions would violate their 1st Amendment right to free expression.

But false advertising does not meet constitutional muster. And just as Americans have always had the right to tell solicitors to stop haranguing them, Internet users have a right to tell spammers to stop sending them unwanted missives imploring "Turbo-Charge Your Sex Life!"

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