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Fred's Views

Spam-ex, Maybe

There have been rumors that "big" companies like Microsoft and Intel are taking a serious look at ways to cut down on the vast quantities of junk e-mail that overwhelm us daily. Now, at least one state, Massachusetts, I think, is proposing legislation to help cut down on spam.

In the short run, the state proposal won't necessarily cut down on the amount of spam, but it will make it far easier to identify most spam and get rid it automatically. The proposal is that all "advertising" e-mail must start with "ADV" in the subject line. All material of an "adult" nature must start with "ADLT" in the subject line. It should be a simple procedure to have your e-mail program or spam-blocker program flag all e-mail containing either of these codes. I'm sure some spammers will contend that their message is "for information purposes" and not advertising, but I hope the state will take a very narrow view of what is not advertising.

The questions that plagued me are ... how will it work, and how effective can it be if other states, provinces, etc. don't follow suit? To my mind, the law could be applied in one of three ways: If the company/individual actually releasing the e-mails to the Internet (the e-mail server, if you like) is located in the state, then all e-mail being sent out is covered. Or, if the originator of the e-mail (the "from" address - if it were a real address) resides in the state. The final choice is if the e-mail is addressed to a resident of the state. Let's see how these could work.

If the Internet Service Provider actually sending these e-mails is the one responsible for making sure all e-mails have the correct abbreviation, then, unfortunately, all the spam originators would have to do is find a new ISP in a different state or country. Not as easy to do as it would be for legitimate people like you and me to change ISPs, but not difficult, either. The net effect would be to seriously limit the income of some businesses in the state without actually putting any dent in spam. Not a good choice.

At first glance, the obvious choice would seem to be to force all e-mail senders who reside in the state to add the abbreviations to their bulk e-mail. Enforcement might be a little tricky, but there are electronic footprints that may make it possible to track down offenders.

Forcing e-mailers to add the abbreviations to e-mail sent to residents of the state would be difficult for e-mailers to adhere to and hard for the state to enforce - but wait, a light dawns. Yes, it would be difficult for mailers to identify Massachusetts residents, so, if the state could show that it can and will prosecute offenders, e-mailers might then be forced to add the abbreviations to all of their sendings - and that would be good for all of us.

Some bulk mailers, I'm sure are paid for sending out thousands of mailings, regardless of results. For these people, the quality of their lists are of minor importance. However, those paying for the mailings and those who send out bulk mailings to sell their "product" themselves, should be seriously concerned about the quality of their lists. Most people don't take kindly to companies who irritate them. I have a long-standing unofficial policy of not doing any business with a company who contacts me through "telemarketing". Telemarketing is an extremely intrusive form of privacy invasion, and I simply hang up as soon as I discover what they are - if I answer the phone in the first place. A dozen or less junk e-mails a day was, in my opinion, less intrusive. I could simply delete them with or without reading them. Back in the "good old days" when my junk e-mails did number less than a dozen I did usually take a quick look at each one, but that is no longer an option. Today I receive well over 100 e-mails daily, about 95% of which are unsolicited (or unknowingly/unwantedly solicited). I use a spam blocker that is slowly learning to automatically mark most junk mail for deletion. I quickly scan the subject lines just to double check that something important has not been wrongly marked (such as my daily Dilbert mailing, which my spam blocker always marks, but which is definitely not junk mail). Then the spam blocker deletes them from the server. But it's still a pain in the butt.

I would like to believe that spammers don't really want to send junk to people who don't want it and who won't respond to it, but then I'm an eternal optimist. Somebody must be making money or surely this blight would die off of its own accord. So the question is, who is responding to these stupid ads? And has anyone ever received what they thought they were going to receive? Most "work from home" schemes simply ask for money to, essentially, allow you to become a spammer too. Does any legitimate lender/financial counsellor actually send out spam? Or are all these promises to get you out of debt merely a scheme to get you to buy a list of lenders you would have more luck finding in the telephone book? I don't honestly know, but I have little doubt that 99% of spam is nothing but a rip off (and I'm an optimist). People! Wake up! Stop responding to spam! And if, by some fluke, something actually interesting should appear in your e-mail, don't just click on the link. Read the address from your status bar and enter it in your browser manually. Don't include anything after a question mark - or just stop after the ".com" or similar domain. That way, you'll get to find out what the deal is with out supporting spam.

It's a fine balancing act between protecting our rights, our freedoms (including the freedom of choice) and protecting us from spammers or terrorists. Frankly, I don't trust Microsoft to do it - after all, each new version of Windows seems to take away more of our freedom of choice. And Microsoft's products seem to be riddled with security problems. Although the "techie" in me longs for a high tech solution to spam, The practical me is inclined to favor the Massachusetts approach. Let's give it a try.

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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