TCS Daily

Law and Spamconomics

By Sonia Arrison - April 24, 2003 12:00 AM

"Get the Iraqi 'Most-Wanted' Deck of Playing Cards - only $5.95 a Set!"

This message is one of the most recent spam campaigns hitting email boxes around the world. Spam, the junk mail of the digital age, is the target of a Senate bill that, despite intentions, will have little effect.

On April 10, Senators Conrad Burns and Ron Wyden introduced CAN-SPAM, a version of a previous bill from the last congressional session. It would require spammers to let recipients opt out of messages and impose penalties for fake return addresses and deceptive subject headings - that is, if they can catch the spammers and enforce the law.

The problem with relying on law is that American legislation can only be enforced on American firms and much unsolicited email originates from outside the country. Internet legend Vinton Cerf had it right when he said that the absence of global law makes spam laws hard to enforce.

But even the most draconian laws wouldn't stop digital snake-oil vendors with frequently changing email accounts from pushing their wares on millions of potential customers. The U.S. already has anti-fraud laws that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is frantically trying to enforce.

Recently, the FTC spent time chasing sellers of fake international drivers licenses, and while spam email of this sort has appeared to wane, many of the illegal vendors have simply switched to pushing some other product to make a quick and fraudulent buck. It's a never-ending cat-and-mouse game in which the mice have nine lives.

Since law is unlikely to stop the deluge, it might be surprising that companies like Yahoo, eBay, and even the Direct Marketing Association are supporting the idea of some sort of spam legislation. But dig a little deeper and things become clear.

The simultaneous increase in both frustration over spam and the number of spam bills introduced in Congress makes it appear that some sort of law is inevitable, so companies are probably hedging their bets by supporting ones they think they can live with. This is understandable, but not exactly the best way to formulate public policy.

"Spam has a big economic impact on rural communities and businesses," said Senator Burns. "The costs are enormous for people paying long distance charges for their Internet time. This is unfair to consumers, and something needs to be done."

Indeed, something should be done, but new legislation that simply adds to the country's anti-fraud laws won't solve this growing problem. AOL has become so frustrated that it recently announced lawsuits against more than a dozen companies and individuals it claims are responsible for sending its members an estimated one billion pieces of spam that generated more than eight million complaints.

Brightmail, a company that sells anti-spam technology to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T WorldNet, EarthLink, and MSN says that in the month of March alone, there were more than six million unique spam attacks. And while Brightmail claims their technology "offers by far the best accuracy rate available," junk email still frustrates users.

Other software programs, such as SpamAssassin or Cloudmark's SpamNet, also aim to use tech to fix the problem, but spam remains out of control. So what's the answer? In a word: economics.

The reason there is so much spam is that there is no charge to send email. Even if a spammer only gets a tiny response rate, it's probably worth his time to send bulk messages because the costs are so minimal.

The best way to fight spam is a system in which each user can charge senders they don't know for sending them email. This would serve to discourage bulk emailers who bog down servers with junk. And the communication power of the Net would remain intact.

Email addresses of family and friends could be placed on the user's "free list," so that free communication between willing individuals would continue unfettered. And if someone accidentally is charged for access to your email box, the charge can be refunded with the click of a button.

Numerous experts have confirmed the technical feasibility of this idea, so it's really now a matter of implementation. As long as the policy community continues to focus on law over economics, it will be difficult to solve the problem of spam.

ISPs understand that this idea can work, but many are still waiting for someone else to be the first to offer it. This is a perfect opportunity for one of the more enterprising outfits to show once again that the technology community moves faster than law and distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

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