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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, April 12, 2004

"Do Not Spam List" is a misguided waste of money

With the tremendously favorable public reaction over the national "do not call list" flocked to by millions of Americans seeking refuge from annoying telemarketers its no surprise that politicians are pushed through a similar registry for spam. It's a "money issue" as the consultants say. Who wouldn't be against spam? I am. So is everyone I know. But, as usual, being for or against spam is not the real issue. Like many issues facing us, the choices on how to address the problem are more subtle than the black and white approach to problem solving that is en vogue with many of our leaders.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to establish a national do not spam list and President Bush happily signed it into law to try to make people think he's paying attention to "domestic" issues. Its good politics to be for the list:over 75% of Americans favor the creation of such a list. Shamelessly basking in the glow of his political point scoring, Senator Shumer stated: "Americans scored their first major victory today in the effort to take the Internet back from spammers...The vast majority of Americans say they want a do-not-spam registry, and today the Senate is granting them their wish." The campaign consultants love this kind of feel good, please-the-public politics. But, good politics does not always make good policy.

There is no question spam is a problem. It hampers small business and annoys most of us. In worst cases its used for fraud. The most common forms of spam include advertisements, most of which are fraudulent in nature. Some experts estimate that spam costs American businesses, including many small businesses least able to pay, $10 billion a year in productivity losses, equipment expenses and employing technicians on computer help desks. So, yes we need to do something. But, creating a do not spam list is not the answer.

The Can Spam Actl calls for the Federal Trade Commission, the agency maintaining the popular and useful do not call list, to deliver a plan to Congress for creating a no-spam registry this summer and to implement the plan sometime this fall - yep, around election time. One problem there is that the FTC Chairman, appointed by President Bush, doesn't believe the do not spam list is a good idea. Is he pro-spam? Of course not. He's simply recognizing that creating and maintaining the list will cost tons of money that could be better used elsewhere.

There are two major problems with spending millions on what byaccountscconts will be a useless effort. First, many spammers are already breaking laws by engaging in deception and/or fraud. People already breaking laws are not likely to follow a new law. Second, up 40% of spam comes from outside the U.S. and the perpetrators outside the country are extremely difficult to track down.

This is one problem where the private sector is the group to lead the charge. Internet Service Providers are already putting forth technological solutions for fighting spam. I use Microsoft email and their spam filter does a decent job of keeping my inbox clean allowing me to navigate through my real email. The private sector will no doubt continue to invest resources in fighting spam because its in their bottom line interest to do so. Nothing prompts a good solution like making a buck!

And, certain parts of the Act, will make take a bite out of spam. Under the new law, Yahoo, Earthlink and AOL recently filed suit against hundreds of defendants using provisions of the Can Spam Act. Some of the defendants were described by the companies as "the nation's most notorious large-scale spammers." Those provisions along with jail time for repeat offenders who use spam for fraudulent purposes make absolute sense.

But, our government leaders need to put the "spam list" in the can and spend less time and money on feel good legislation and more time on real solutions.

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