TCS Daily

OPEN UP! It's the Spam Police!

By Lucas Mast - May 14, 2001 12:00 AM

Eroding liberty for the sake of convenience.

One morning I arrived at work to find an e-mail on my computer that asked: "Lucas, Do You Look Good in a Swimsuit?" Opening it, I found an ad for a new weight-loss product. Some people may be interested in such ads, or offended.

I laughed and hit the delete button.

That`s choice. Liberty. The beauty of the First Amendment is that it gives us the freedom to accept or reject information - to decide. But not if Rep. Heather Wilson (R., NM) gets her way. Her "Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2001" would treat commercial speech on the Internet as something to be regulated. In place of the delete key, we`d have a federal law.

"Anti-spam" bills such as Wilson`s seek to protect Internet users and service providers by creating criminal penalties for senders of unwanted e-mail. The bill allows for "spam" (a marketing term for unwanted commercial e-mail) only if the senders identify the message as unsolicited, provide an accurate e-mail address, and include a notice allowing recipients to request not to receive further messages. Penalties for this proposed law are $500 per violation, not to exceed $50,000. The penalty is increased to three times the amount for willfully, knowingly, or repeatedly violating the law.

The opposition to unwanted e-mail includes privacy advocates, Internet service providers, consumer groups, and members of Congress. These folks see spam as the Godzilla approaching our e-mail in-boxes and government as the good guy that saves the day. Never mind that free speech would be sacrificed to prevent what is, at best, a small annoyance. And never mind that the private sector has already largely solved the problem.

To be sure, some people want to receive "spam," otherwise companies wouldn`t waste money sending it. But for those who want to reduce the amount of junk e-mail they receive, there are several steps they can take without involving the government. For example, they can set the preferences on their e-mail system to accept mail from marketers and friends they trust, and reject everything else. Microsoft provides such a "filter" in the new version of its popular e-mail program, Outlook Express. Even the free e-mail service Hotmail includes an Inbox Protector, which all but eliminates unwanted junk mail.

People can also use more caution when giving out their e-mail address. Or they can use aliases when they surf websites. Or they can use filtering software like BrightMail or websites like to notify spammers` Internet service providers and have their accounts closed. And if people are defrauded by illegal scams, they can still seek protection using existing laws and report offenders to the Federal Trade Commission. The point is, there`s plenty of protection in place already.

Net marketing is in its infancy. If we hastily react to a few bad actors with anti-spam legislation, there likely will be unintended consequences. For example, other forms of e-commerce may be swept up in the rush to rid the Internet of minor nuisances like junk e-mail.

By educating people about their options, the problem may disappear altogether. But if we allow the government to gain control over what comes into our e-mail in-boxes, we`ll be setting a dangerous precedent. What`s next - regulations on which websites we`re allowed to visit? And how will government enforce these laws?

I can see it now, federal agents beating on our doors yelling, "Spam Police! Open up!"
Reprinted with permission from the CATO Institute

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