Guest Column: Fight Spam With Filters, Not Laws

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New legislation may shut down legitimate e-mail users. We don't have to toss out the baby with the bath water. Because the DM market is so imbued with privacy sensitivity, the e-mail phenomenon could backfire on us.

I predict that within three years 30 percent to 40 percent of legitimate commercial e-mail will get bounced. By "legitimate," I mean opt-in and relevant e-mail based on a business relationship.

To help avoid this, our society should migrate to the use of spam filter software. It's our only hope of keeping good e-mail from getting tossed with the bad. Right now, many large firms are encouraging customers to abandon paper and use e-mail. For example, many credit card companies give you incentives to switch off surface mail. This is a good trend, but it is endangered by the spam epidemic.

Spam filters are no cure-all. Even if people install the filters, legitimate invoices and other needed commercial messages may get bounced. They rely on end-users to tune the filters. And people naturally forget to add various companies.

If we required the government to enforce a do-not-e-mail list, with valid e-mail addresses of registered senders, it would work only for legitimate businesses. The Viagra-sellers would go on.

Some of these spammers will send their illegal e-mail by hijacking servers. This problem is ending because of advanced software.

Part of me says to tell my congressman, "We do need this legislation." But if a law is enacted, lawyers will tell marketers not to use the e-mail medium anymore.

The Direct Marketing Association says it's OK to send someone an e-mail once with a valid opt-out method. Liberals say this will cause all Americans to get one e-mail from every company in the United States.

The de facto policy now is: "If you are my customers, I can send you a business or promotional e-mail unless you tell me not to." This is a reasonable attitude.

Those who play ball correctly will suffer from ham-handed legislation, not the guy from Nigeria who wants to use your bank account to park $10 million and those of his ilk. This latter group is the one that angers legislators and increases pressure for opt-in-only legislation.

Old-time Internet users resent all commercialization. They don't realize that the profit incentive has enabled the Web-based progress we've made. But spam has increased about 500 percent in a year.

What is the answer? Maybe you don't do anything about spam in terms of legislation. Instead, the government or trade associations educate people about how to avoid it with spam filters. People need to know that if they subscribe to e-newsletters, their e-mail addresses will be picked up.

It may be best to have the DMA establish companies and individuals as "certified e-mailers." They give you a logo to stick on your Web site. This would establish a company as having a valid address and abiding by certain policies.

Beware of what legislation may be coming. If we don't want an over-regulated environment, we have to act or suggest good alternatives to unlimited spam. It's one way of taking responsibility for our future.


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