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Fantasy lawmaking

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 01/14/02    

Now that the season for fantasy football is just about over, maybe it's time to find some other imaginary pursuits. Such pursuits tend to cost less and take less energy than real ones, so they can be taken up with less commitment on my part. In addition, sometimes doing things with one's imagination is the only way they will get done. Thus, this column about effective laws to limit spam has to be limited to imaginary ones.

There seems to be very little likelihood that Congress will soon, if ever, pass meaningful laws regarding unsolicited e-mail. The legislators seem to be paralyzed trying to balance the right of some slime to shout obscenities in my ear and my right to close the door. So far Congress seems to think that the rights of the slime are paramount and has defaulted to an open- (or nonexistent) door policy.

It's not that there is no reason to figure out ways to deal with spam. Since Sept. 11 there has been a significant increase in the amount of spam. Over 90% of the mail to one of my e-mail accounts is now what I classify as spam, unsolicited and unwanted; six months ago it was only 20%. At this rate the power of Internet-based communication will be destroyed by people deciding that wading through the trash is not worth the few legitimate messages found and just opting out of e-mail altogether.

Some states have started to implement laws on commercial spam that the sender knows is destined for someone within the state. Noncommercial dispatches - for example, spam expressing a political view - may be impossible to regulate under the U.S. Constitution. California and Oregon, at least, have such laws which, so far, have been upheld in court. But I'm not holding my breath for Congress to act, so here are some fantasy laws to fill the gap:

*            I'd ensure that there was an opt-out list that people could put their names on - the spam industry could set it up, or the government could do so if industry did not do so quickly.

*            Any commercial spam sent to an address that had been on the list for more than five days would be a criminal violation subject to a fine of not less than $100 per recipient.

*            Spam that did not include an easy way to refuse additional messages from the company sending the e-mail (and from the company the e-mail is being sent for) would result in a fine of not less than $100,000 per mailing.

*            Spammers that use an opt-out request to validate an e-mail address for future use would be subject to a fine of not less than $100,000 per incident, as would those sending spam from a forged source address or knowingly sending spam to an e-mail list instead of an individual.

Well, you get the picture. Make it hurt to be slime. But now back to reality and a full mailbox.

Disclaimer: Reality is a frequent visitor to Harvard, but the above is my own opinion.

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