TCS Daily


Why I Love Spam

By Nick Gillespie - June 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Teutonic-style outrage over the infinitely exploding amount of spam - unsolicited bulk emails - has officially replaced weapons of mass destruction and even monkeypox as the leading threat to all that is good and decent about life in these United States. "To protect the viability of e-mail," writes Digital Impact's Hans Peter Brondmo in a representative, overheated squib on the topic. "This plague must be eradicated." In The Weekly Standard, the usually perceptive Christopher Caldwell argues that a rising tide of spam means that "there is no chance that the Internet will return to its old level of user-friendliness until lawmakers recognize that the decision to leave it unregulated" was a big mistake.

In the current climate - which includes various pending and sure-to-be-useless legislative fixes - isn't anyone brave enough to say something good about spam? Well, I am. I love spam - and not only because I just placed an order for a guaranteed system that will enlarge my penis so that I can use it to clean my septic tank while playing solitaire with a deck of Iraq's Most Wanted cards. (As long as I'm sharing, I should mention that I only paid $59.99 for all this, using the same unsecured credit card that allowed me to take advantage of Mr. Kwame Ashantee's generous and urgent invitation to invest heavily in the Ghana Gold and Diamond Mining Corporation. As a highly valued early investor, I also received 30 lbs. of herbal Viagra and refinanced my mortgage at the absolute lowest rate of negative 3.4 percent. Who said the Internet hasn't delivered the goods?)

Even as spam clogs my inbox the way the Atkins Diet is clogging colons all over the country - I'd venture that as much as 90 percent of my email is spam (and that's not even counting unsolicited messages from my staff) - I remain thankful for the wonderful alternative universes that the junk opens up for me. Who knew, for instance, that barnyard animals enjoyed such interesting, if libertine, lifestyles? Charlotte's Web and even Animal Farm never prepared us for the inter-species hijinks going down at cyberspace's take on the Farmer in the Dell.

But what I really love about spam comes down to two large points quite unrelated to bestiality, online gambling, and dozens of messages with unreadable phrases such as "Ôµµ º¸°í »Íµµ µû°í..." in the subject line.

First, in what is widely acknowledged to be an unprecedented age of rank ideological bickering (unprecedented, that is, since the age immediately preceding our current one), spam has managed to bring the right and the left together in a way that even a terrorist attack on U.S. soil failed to. "Spam Fight Unites Liberal, Conservatives" shouts a headline for an Associated Press story detailing how Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has taken the stunning step of teaming up with the Christian Coalition to choke spam - especially porn-related spam - off the Internet. Take a look at their respective agendas to get a sense of the distance between the two. The Christian Coalition's is here and the senator's
here
. As John White, a political scientist at Catholic University observed, The Christian Coalition is "actually working with someone they disagree with on 99 percent of all other issues, and who they would like to defeat when he runs for re-election in 2004."

"I sort of had a brainstorm one night and said, `Why don't I reach out to the Christian Coalition?'...I called the lady, and she was very enthusiastic," Schumer told the AP. Thus came into being the most unlikely, if unappealing, media coupling since Godzilla took up with the Smog Monster some 30 years ago. That spam has prompted a "brainstorm" in a politician whose previous legislative efforts have included attempts to regulate the cereal industry is itself nothing short of amazing. But surely the fact that spam has created not simply a dialogue but a partnership between these two is a sign that the Age of Miracles is not yet over.

The second large point relates to the legislation that Schumer has introduced, the Stop Pornography and Abusive Marketing (SPAM) Act. For those of us who prefer decentralized, individualized fixes to overarching, top-down ones, Schumer's bill, which is one of many similar bills floating around Washington, D.C., helps to make our case. With certain exceptions (read: exceptions for politically connected groups, such as members of the Direct Marketing Association), the bill would require commercial emailers to insert "ADV" in the subject line of their messages, create a national "Do Not Spam" registry, and let people sue spammers for up to $1,000 per offending email (talk about making spurious legal action even easier than it is already). Schumer's bill would not only potentially outlaw anonymous remailers - a service that is part of what makes the Internet the Internet - it showcases how political solutions often miss their real mark. "Laws should focus on what is the harmful thing that's being done," privacy consultant Ray Everett-Church told CNET News' Declan McCullagh. "In the case of spam, it's really a question of cost-shifting from the sender to the recipient. If there were a law against shifting the cost of advertising onto the recipients, then you could go after junk faxes, spam and (wireless) spam."

Which means that Schumer's bill and others like it - not to mention the nearly three dozen existing state laws - are not only misguided but likely to be ineffective. Part of the reason is that, as Pacific Research Institute's Sonia Arrison pointed out recently at TCS, "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." Even within these borders, she continues, "The U.S. already has anti-fraud laws that the Federal Trade Commission is frantically trying to enforce."

Another reason Schumer's SPAM Act would fail is that spam, like the pornography it so often advertises, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, more precisely, the nuisance level of spam is highly subjective and can only be properly sorted out at the individual level. As The New York Times has detailed, the vastly popular "Iraqi Most Wanted" card decks were almost completely a function of spam-based marketing; clearly, the folks who bought over 1 million decks in a matter of days didn't necessarily find that particular piece of spam insulting.

That means that technology - including computer programs that are rapidly improving in quality and the innovative micro-payment approach favored by Arrison - that empowers the end user, rather than laws that seek to speak for all of us, is far more likely to resolve the great spam crisis of June 2003.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason, which was just named one of the "50 Best Magazines" by the Chicago Tribune.
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