Spam issues center on perception

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Dean Rieck
Dean Rieck

Recently, Virginia's Supreme Court upheld the nation's first conviction of “felony spam.”

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDon­nell commented on the case, saying, “Spam not only clogs e-mail inboxes and destroys productivity, it also defrauds citizens and threatens the online revolution. Thanks to the Virginia Anti-SPAM Act, we now have the tools to go after spammers and put them behind bars.”

It is a good ruling, since the convicted spammer is clearly a criminal. But this case shows how spam has gone from petty annoyance to serious crime.

Are you safe if you follow CAN-SPAM to the letter? Let me share with you what a system administrator told me recently in a friendly debate about what is or is not spam. He said, “CAN-SPAM isn't worth the paper it's written on. What you have to watch out for are system administrators [who are] having a bad week.”

In his opinion, any e-mail that isn't spe­cifically requested from you personally is spam. No buying lists. No list sharing. No third parties in the privacy policy.

Extreme? I think so. But here's the point. It doesn't matter what I think. Spam isn't a legal issue. It's a perception issue. You and I can't decide what is or is not spam. And we can't hide behind legal definitions. These days, spam is whatever an annoyed ISP or e-mail recipient says it is.

Virginia isn't the only state to crack down on unwanted e-mail. At least 38 states have passed anti-spam laws. And more laws are certainly on the way.

Today, the laws focus on blatant crime. But what about tomorrow? All it will take is one legislator with some upset constit­uents to start something ugly. Can you imagine having to comply with federal, international, and 50 different state laws?

We'd better stop tolerating bad behavior. We'd better stop pretending that e-mail is a cheap form of direct mail. And we'd better start paying attention to public perception even if we think it's unfair. Otherwise, we may see e-mail as a marketing medium leg­islated out of existence.


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