a few propellerheads
SPAM. It's Gotta Go!

Some of you are probably hoping that I can give you a good solution to your SPAM problem, and others of you might be wondering if I'm talking about lunch meat. The SPAM I'm talking about is not a ham product, but 'Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail'. A garbage heap by any other name would smell as rotten.

If you have a mailbox, you probably receive your fair share of paper junk mail. It's fairly easy to identify, even easier to toss, and doesn't cost you a dime (in fact the bulk mail industry probably subsidizes our normal postage). Not that it isn't obnoxious at times, but there are remedies including asking the post office not to deliver it.

With electronic junk mail, none of those things is true. I routinely get e-mails with subject lines like 'Hey!!! Give me a call', and 'hey :)' and 'Re: hi there'. Are these friends with new e-mail addresses or SPAM? Unfortunately those and more than 1100 other messages I have received are all SPAM. I have to check each message and make sure that it isn't from somebody I know before tossing it.

It is a nuisance having to sort through all of the junk, but that's not all there is to it. Rather than SPAM being free, as is paper junk mail, it arrives postage due! Every e-mail I download costs me money, and yet the million or so messages that the SPAMmer sends costs her no more than sending one. If that weren't bad enough the million messages consume bandwidth that adds to the overall operational costs of the Internet, and my ISP has to increase it's server capacity in order to deal with them when they arrive. My ISP isn't going to just eat that cost indefinitely. Eventually that cost gets passed on to me.

SPAMmers feel that any laws prohibiting them from SPAMming would be limiting their freedom of speech. The thing that they don't mention is that they are charging the listeners while they are speaking.

There are two main technical/political solutions being discussed in varying forms, but so far the political weight seems to be behind the solutions which benefit the SPAMmer over the lowly SPAMee. The technical part of the solutions are referred to as 'Opt In' systems and 'Opt Out' systems.

In an 'Opt In' system, when an end user would like to receive electronic junk mail, she would contact the junk mailer (using e-mail or a web site) and indicate that she would like to receive junk mail.

In an 'Opt Out' system, when an end user received a SPAM message that she didn't want, she would e-mail the SPAMmer and request to be removed from the junk mailer's list.

The political part of the solutions would guarantee that the technical part of the solution was adhered to under penalty of law. This would include requiring the SPAM to be labeled as junk mail, and providing a legitimate means of contacting the sender. This is important because most SPAMmers today don't actually include a way to contact them easily and when they do, it is often simply a way to verify your e-mail address in order to send you more SPAM.

The problem with the 'Opt Out' solution is that there are thousands of SPAMmers with more cropping up every day. I noticed a program the other day which compares all of your incoming e-mail with a list of known SPAMmers...17,000 of them! I really don't feel like spending my time replying to 17,000 people explaining that I didn't want their crap in the first place!

As you can see though, an 'Opt Out' solution is much more palatable to SPAMmers and their lobbyists since they can send you at least one message before you tell them to stop. Of the several bills currently before the federal legislature, only one actually stops the SPAM from arriving. The rest simply wish to 'Label' the spam, or make sure that the SPAMmer includes a legitimate means of contact. All this would do is make the SPAM easier to throw away, and do nothing to ensure that we, the end users, don't continue to pay for it.

I encourage all of you to write to your Senators and Congressman. Let them know that you don't wish to pay to receive junk mail you didn't want in the first place. And let them know soon! There are several bills under consideration that would essentially legitimize SPAM.

To emphasize the importance of writing, let me point out that many of the representatives who authored these bills don't use e-mail and that you will have to get out pen and paper in order to contact them. Don't let the lobbyists decide these issues for us. And definitely don't allow your representative to vote without knowing how you feel.

john m. brewer
september 25, 1998