Spam spam spam spam. Lovely spam! Wonderful spam! OpEd by John Mack

The very funny Monty Python Spam Skit probably helped sell more of the canned Spam than any advertising campaign did. Some people predict that the new CAN-SPAM law will have a similar effect on the e-mail version of spam — that is, increase the amount of spam e-mail. You can read about this law in this month’s feature article, which also offers some definitions of spam as applied to e-mail.

I probably get more spam e-mail than most of people. After all, my name and e-mail address are prominently displayed on dozens of web sites and in hundreds of e-mail messages. So it’s no wonder that this information has been harvested by spammers.

Yet, my hackles rise when it comes to some of the techniques being used to limit the amount of spam e-mail being sent through the Internet and to me in particular.

Recently, for example, my Internet Service Provider (ISP) installed a spam filter on its e-mail servers that completely blocks e-mail from “blacklisted” IP addresses, regardless of the content. They started doing this without any notice or explanation to me. This bothers me because I want to be the ultimate judge of what is and what is not spam. But more importantly, my business depends on communication by e-mail and I want to be sure every message gets through to me.

You might ask, “What’s the problem? Filtering is good.”

Yes, but only if I understand what rules are being used to filter e-mail. My ISP made the decision to use a blacklist from spamhaus, which has blacklisted an online service that I use. So now, all of a sudden and without warning, I no longer can get transactional messages from the service, messages that I need to run my business!

Maybe I shouldn’t do business with a blacklisted company. That’s precisely what the people who run blacklists want to happen. Never mind that no one elected them to fill this role!

Another ISP that routes some of my e-mail from a particular domain uses a different filter technique, which automatically appends the prefix “[SPAM]” to any e-mail message that it deems to be spam. How it determines what messages should be labeled spam, I don’t know. All I know is that some e-mail that gets that label is perfectly legitimate e-mail that I want to receive.

I think that the solutions-including the CAN-SPAM law and technical fixes-are worse than the problem they are designed to solve. The CAN-SPAM law, for example, gives ISPs the right to bring suit against “spammers.” Consequently, ISPs may define what spam is, implement blocking software based on rules they define, and now have the legal right to sue! Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

Whatever your opinion of the CAN-SPAM law and blacklists, a bright light is now focused on the spam e-mail problem. As usual, those e-mail marketers who want to obey the law have to jump through new hoops and change their business practices. Meanwhile, the real spammers will no doubt continue to outfox the regulatory agencies, attorneys general, and the ISPs and continue to spew spam at will.

Vol. 3, No.1: January 2004
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