Take Spam Off The Menu

Steve DelBianco

Spam: Something must be done, but what?

While everyone can agree that “something must be done” about the flood of spam that is choking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and overwhelming our inboxes, there is very little consensus on exactly what the “something” is. New technologies are deployed to battle spam, ISPs are suing the most egregious spammers, the Federal Trade Commission is going after fraudulent spammers, and state and federal lawmakers have proposed or enacted dozens of differing spam laws.

I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it

The critical hurdle in finding real solutions is finding an actual definition for ‘spam.’ The reality is that each person defines spam differently, or as an ISP representative said recently, “spam is whatever our members say it is.” With a definition that’s so individualized and fluid, solutions should focus on providing and ensuring consumer choice about what is, and what to do about unsolicited commercial e-mail. With that focus in mind, NetChoice came up with this working definition of spam:

Bulk, unsolicited commercial e-mail that persists after a consumer has opted-out or unsubscribed, bears a deceptive subject line, header or message, or comes from a fraudulent or suspect source

Greater User Control: Both the means and the end of any spam solution

There is no “silver-bullet” that will slay the werewolf of persistent and unwanted spam. Consumers, as the prime target and end-recipient of spam, will find themselves the ultimate arbiters in the clash between legitimate e-mail marketing and bulk e-mail spammers. At the May 2003 FTC spam conference, a representative of AOL defined spam as “whatever our members say it is.” To preserve individual preferences about what’s allowed to be delivered to an inbox, it is imperative that a spam solution empower consumers with the information, tools, and protections to allow them to exercise control over what is to be blocked and what is not.

A Framework for Solutions

There is no “silver-bullet” that will slay the werewolf of persistent and unwanted spam. The complexity of the direct-e-mail marketplace, the resourcefulness of spammers, and the global nature of the Internet ensure that no single piece of legislation or technology will stop all spam. Stemming the tide of spam will require multiple, complementary efforts from the technology community, the Internet Service Providers, governments and e-mail users. To help evaluate new efforts, NetChoice has created a framework for broader thinking about spam solutions.

Key Attributes of a Successful System of Spam Solutions: 1)

HOLISTIC IN APPROACH: Solving the spam problem will require a system of solutions that include technology, legislation, government enforcement, legal actions and improved business practices. 2)

ADAPTIVE BY DESIGN: Senders of spam have already demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt their techniques to avoid new anti-spam measures and evade identification, capture and punishment. Remedies must be able to adapt to changes in the nature and tactics of spammers. 3)

GLOBAL IN SCOPE: E-commerce isn’t bound by geo-political boundaries, and neither are spam and e-mail marketing. Therefore, global cooperation on this issue, through corporate, governmental and other non-governmental means will be a necessary attribute of any spam solution.

Finding the Right Balance Between Effectiveness and e-Commerce Opportunity

The likely effectiveness of a properly designed spam solution must be balanced against anticipated loss of e-commerce opportunity. The abolition of all unsolicited mail, as some have advocated, would unduly punish honest marketers while fraudulent spammers could still ply their trade with little interruption. The appropriate trade-off is to balance modest costs to e-commerce with a hearty respect for consumer preferences.

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