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Antispam bill lacks bite

Congress yields to the myths of commerce again, with familiar results. 5/25 ReleVents hed: Anti-spam bill lacks bite dek: Congress yields to commerce again, with familiar results. By James Mathewson

Excuse me for my cynicism regarding Congress’ antispam efforts. Year after year, concerned citizens loudly voice their opinions, and year after year a strong antispam bill is weakened in committee to the point where it’s not even worth signing into law. The culprit? Special interests that want to continue “direct marketing” via unsolicited e-mail.

A news story on our site today describes just the latest example of how legislators perpetuate myths about spam for the sake of their favorite special interests. I won’t summarize the story, but I do want to pull out some interesting quotes that illustrate these myths.

Rep: James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.): “I’m concerned about making a federal case out of a mere annoyance.”

Spam is not a mere annoyance. It is a critical drag on e-mail systems across the country. The majority of businesses use Outlook/Exchange to handle their e-mail. This solution stores the messages on a hard drive on a server, not locally. Because storage is centralized and server performance depends on efficiently used hard-drive space (defragmented with plenty of space available), spam both slows e-mail service for millions of workers and causes periodic service outages. As such, it takes a huge chunk out of U.S. productivity.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D-Calif.): “What’s wrong with just using the ‘delete’ button on your keyboard?”

Deleting spam is not the only time waster. While I take about 15 minutes every day deleting unwanted e-mail, which is a sizable productivity hit if I am typical, my e-mail server slows down for everyone in my company due to spam. I could reasonably add another 30 minutes for every employee in the company per day in a 120-person shop. What they do at 1000-person shops is beyond me. I suppose they have spam filters, but spammers are very good at averting antispam software.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.): “Most customers have little or no monetary incentive to take a spammer to court. ISPs, on the other hand, are much more likely to have incurred substantial costs associated with crashed servers and downtime, for example, and can act on behalf of all of their customers.”

ISPs aren’t the only businesses suffering under the burden of spam. Yes, ISPs are hurt by spam. But so are individual businesses. Many businesses like ours connect to the Internet directly from a backbone provider–in our case, UUNET. In a sense, we are our own ISP, and we are similarly hurt by spam. If I were crunching the productivity numbers around here, I would have a huge monetary incentive to take spammers to court. So we’re not just talking about ISPs here, but most small- to medium-sized businesses.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.): “This amendment says as long as you are shameless about being a professional pornographer and don’t lie about who you are, you have a perfect right to send unsolicited e-mail to anyone, including children.”

Hear hear! This cuts to the heart of the matter quite nicely. The marked-up bill is so diluted, it only makes spam that comes from a faked address illegal. The result is, as long as spammers are up front about it, they will have every right to continue to flood business’ e-mail servers with junk. And many of the filters will be rendered ineffective because they are mainly written to stop mail from obviously faked addresses. Why even bother to pass a bill with no teeth?

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and

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