How To Can The Spam

Looking at my bloated in box, it's amazing to realize that less than a measly decade ago, you could have had a reasonable debate about whether the Internet should accommodate any commercialism. Now the argument is whether a vile form of capitalism will kill the Net's best feature: e-mail. Each hour brings a torrent of unwelcome and often appalling "spam"--a term insufficiently odious to describe what's happened to the poor Internet (at least you can spit out the real thing if someone sneaks it in your omelet). I am certain you are as fed up as I am with the promises to make body parts and bank accounts bigger, the offers to buy Viagra or inkjet cartridges and the opportunities to recover a hidden fortune of the widow of some fallen despot. And almost certainly, when starkly explicit images pop up on your screen, you have wondered just how this can be happening--and perhaps you've looked over your shoulder in case John Ashcroft is ready to cuff you for harboring sinful jpegs.

So how do we start fixing it? Clearly, technical approaches are part of the solution. Apple and Microsoft have pretty good but far from flawless filters in their mail clients. Measures taken before the junk gets to the in box include "blacklisting," which blocks stuff from known spammers, and "whitelisting," which permits only e-mail from preapproved senders. Eventually, we may have broader schemes that detect spam as it moves through the system, making it easier to identify and block. But in the meantime, we have to take a step that some digital libertarians might find distasteful. We should pass a federal law to control spam. Some states have acted on their own, but the nature of the Net demands a single, unified and powerful bill.

Actually, this is one tech issue where Congress isn't clueless. In the last session, Sen. Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, introduced the CAN SPAM Act. In the House, Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, introduced the Anti-Spamming Act, and a second bill was sponsored by Robert Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia. Time ran out on these bills (backburnered after September 11), but the legislators all say they intend to return to the problem. So there's at least a chance that we're going to see something. But what? Before the lobbyists weigh in, I suggest some baseline standards for any legislation that fights spam without violating free speech.

LABELING: Here's the bottom line: if you send me unsolicited commercial mail, you must tag it clearly and indelibly in the subject line. If it has explicit sexual material in it, that should be labeled as well. Ideally, this should be done in a way that not only allows my mail client to delete all spam in the blink of an eye, but also allows my Internet service provider, if I so instruct it, to prevent such mail from reaching me in the first place. That way I won't pay for downloading and storing stuff that I don't want to have even for a second.

There should be firm penalties for noncompliance, but even firmer ones for attempts to trick people into thinking their spam is actual e-mail. These are trespassers. If someone dares send me and a million others porn mail with a subject line reading "last week's dinner," how about some hard time? And let's Web-cast the perp walk.

RETURN ADDRESS: Any unsolicited spam must have a return address that won't bounce replies. That would enable recipients and their ISPs to filter out a good deal of spam. Criminalize the stealing of a third party's e-mail address.

ENFORCEMENT: I don't expect the Feds to find a way to track down international spam weasels when the best minds of the Internet can't do it. But there should be a means to at least make life more miserable for those who violate the law. Law professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford has suggested an innovative approach: a bounty to those who track down violators.

Would such a law allow us to block out all unwanted spam? Of course not--some of these spamsters are the dregs of the world, and they'll use all the tricks of the digital age to do their dirty work. But remember that if they're selling stuff, somewhere there's a money trail to follow. In any case, it would be an important step to get these creeps officially defined as outlaws.

So let's make sure that this time around, Congress acts on its bills (the proposed bills from the previous session are good starting points but need tougher labeling provisions). The best way to start liberating ourselves from this paralyzing e-blizzard is to call, write or buttonhole our representatives and let them know how we feel. Oh, hell, go ahead and spam the lot of them. Maybe then they'll listen.