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Spam and punishment

Spam and punishment

Every person with an e-mail address knows the ugly truth: Spam is alive, kicking, and trashing our in-boxes.

SpamAssassin. SpamKiller. Spam Punisher. And, of course, Spam Must Die! Judging from the names of these and other antispam utilities, a veritable army of technology companies is attempting to blast junk e-mail off the face of the earth. But every person with an e-mail address knows the ugly truth: Spam is alive, kicking, and trashing our in-boxes. And to swipe a phrase from Nietzsche, what doesn't kill spam makes it stronger.

ISPs continue to fortify their servers against sleazy marketers who try to hijack them to send spam, and filtering software is improving at spotting unwanted inbound messages. Yet these defenses trigger new generations of smarter, sneakier spam. Clearly, technology alone isn't going to quash the junk anytime soon.

Enter Uncle Sam

Can government succeed where science, so far, has failed? That's the hope behind an array of proposed new laws designed to put spammers out of business.

The right law would provide both a deterrent effect and the ability to punish those people who do spam. But there are plenty of reasons to approach legal solutions with healthy skepticism. The most damnable spammers, such as grifters and porn peddlers, are the least likely to be fazed by laws. Many are located offshore, out of easy reach of U.S. authorities.

Though I despise spam greatly, I love the First Amendment more--so I fret about proposed laws that would dictate what you can and can't say in an e-mail message. Should they draw distinctions between bulk mailers who hawk "herbal Viagra" and more-responsible senders? If I drop a note to a friend of a friend telling him I'm trying to sell my car, have I become a spammer? Most important, can we be sure such laws will never be used against political or religious speech?

There are no easy answers here, one reason why none of the national laws currently under consideration is a slam-dunk.

The numbers tell the story: In 2001 spam made up a merely irritating 8 percent of all e-mail, according to estimates by Brightmail Inc., a spam-filtering company. That figure ballooned to an alarming 40 percent in 2002, Brightmail says. So when research firm The Radicati Group says that spam could make up 70 percent of all e-mail by 2007, it's not just a nightmare scenario--it's utterly plausible.

Despite my reservations, I believe we need both a national law and better software to kill spam before it kills off e-mail as a useful communications tool. -- PC World (US)

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