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USA Makes A Dog's Breakfast Of Spam Law 27 November 2003 Edition
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It was a good idea really -- pass a law that would make spam illegal and by doing so, help to ease the burden of hundreds of millions of Net users whose mailboxes are regularly filled with solicitations for penis enlargement products and cheap loans.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, it appears that US politicians either didn't really understand the problem or were simply swayed by lobbyists with big fat wallets.

The result -- a law which, according to some analysts, actually legitimises spam and makes the sending of such dross less likely to land the spammer in hot water because, being issued by the federal government, it over-rides the tougher legislation some states have already passed.

Let's take a quick look at where the US legislators went wrong and hope that our own government -- if it ever gets around to dealing with the problem, can learn from those mistakes.


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Firstly, this is basically an opt-out law. That means spammers can send you email (subject to a few basic caveats) so long as they offer you the right to opt-out of future mailings.

Unfortunately, opting out of a spam sent to promote one company won't mean you're opted out of other spams sent to promote other companies or even different products sold by the same company.

So, if there are 1,001 companies selling herbal viagra, you'll have to opt out 1,001 times. If those 1,001 companies actually sell 10 different products then you're already up to 10,010 opt-outs required!

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But wait, it gets worse!

Since the opt-out process is not clearly defined by the law, there's no reason why a spammer can't direct you to their website to opt-out.

Now think of the money to be made if you set up a page with a thousand and one porno-banners -- you know, the type that pay affiliates a few cents per impression or click-through. The opt-out process could earn a savvy spammer hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in commissions!

Suddenly a new business model is born -- people spamming stuff that they know nobody will buy -- simply so they'll opt out and, at the same time, view enough ads to nicely fill up the spammer's bank account.

Let's see -- send out a million emails, expect 100,000 opt-outs. Each opt-out visitor to the website generates 10 ad-banner impressions at $0.05 each --- hey, that's a cool $50,000 per spam-run! Sure beats flogging herbal viagra right?

Another part of the law seeks to make it easier for us to cope with spam and requires all spam to have some kind of identifier in the subject line so that it can be more easily filtered out by those who don't want to receive it.

Yes, this is a laudable suggestion (although not so laudable as introducing measures that might mean unwanted spams are never sent in the first place) but there's no strict definition of how such emails should be identified.

The most sensible would be to use a tag such as [ADV] or [SPAM] in the subject -- however, since there's nothing defined, spammers could use almost anything and claim it was an indicator that the message was spam. Hell, a lot of the spam I get now is already identifiable to humans because it contains a series of random characters in the subject line -- but try to get a computer to recongise that as a spam marker and you'll be wasting a lot of CPU time.

Another seemingly sensible clause is the one that prohibits spidering websites to collect email addresses -- but how are you going to enforce this?

There's just no way to prove that a spammer got your email address from spidering a website.

Even if you set up a webpage with addresses that are only ever used on that page -- there's still no guarantee that some hapless websurfer hasn't mentioned that address to others as part of a conversation on a mailing list somewhere.

No, I'm sorry but the US legislators have simply proven that they're totally incompetent when it comes to dealing with spam. Maybe our ITC Minister was right when he implied that politicians simply aren't smart enough to deal with the problem of spam.

However, speaking of spam solutions, David Harris (of Pegasus Mail) was kind enough to respond to a previous column I wrote on the issue of spam. I invite you to read his comments.

If any Aardvark readers want to share an opinion on today's column or add something, you're invited to chip in and have your say in The Aardvark Forums or, if you prefer, you can contact me directly.

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