CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published September 16, 2002

Spam quickly becoming the scourge of the Internet

Have I told you lately how much I loathe spam? Not the musubi favorite from Hawaii, but the scourge of the Internet that continues to defile the inboxes of millions daily.

Spam is defined as sending "irrelevant or inappropriate messages to one or more mailing lists in deliberate or accidental violation of netiquette." It's estimated that unsolicited bulk emails now account for 36 percent of all e-mail traffic on the Internet, up dramatically from 8 percent just one year ago. Since email programs now support HTML and rich text formats, it's routine to find full color advertisements hawking obscene and unwanted content among your everyday posts.

In reaction, I've seen an increase in "change of e-mail address" notifications from business associates who are fed up with the amount of spam clogging their networks. Many of us have been using the same email account for years, having readily given out that address during a time when the Internet was more collaborative and less commercial in nature. I now shield my primary e-mail address as carefully as I safeguard my Social Security number, and use secondary accounts such as Yahoo! or HotMail as a public e-mail address. ISPs and network administrators fight this plague with blocking and filtering software such as Brightmail, but it's an uphill battle.

Some relief may be in sight, although we've heard such encouragement in the past. Three consumer groups, frustrated by the pace of anti-spam legislation, are putting pressure on the Federal Trade Commission to expand its definitions of deceptive trade practices to include unsolicited commercial e-mail. The Telecommunications Research and Action Center, the National Consumers League and Consumer Action have jointly launched this concerted effort, called Ban the Spam.

The FTC, which currently has jurisdiction over e-mail content that is fraudulent, is being asked to include as deceptive and unlawful any unsolicited commercial e-mail that meets the following criteria:

* Misrepresents the sender (in source or routing information).

* Misrepresents the subject or content of the email.

* Fails to provide reliable contact information for the real party in interest.

* Fails to provide a reliable opt-out system.

* Is sent to an individual who has opted out or resigned from sender's list.

These criteria hit the mark in identifying the most frustrating aspects of spam. You're often duped into reading the e-mail by a misleading subject line. You can't send a return message back to the source, because the return address is faked and you can't reliably opt out of a bulk mailing list, because this just confirms your identity on the list as a live body.

Perhaps the FTC will take a lead from the decision last May by the European Parliament that makes it illegal to send "unsolicited e-mail, text messages or advertisements to individuals with whom companies do not have a preexisting business relationship." As a result of these "opt-in" laws, it's predicted that Europe may become a spam-free zone as early as 2003.

One could only dream of being so lucky, but in a country with strong free-speech tenets and tenacious direct marketers, it remains to be seen how effective Ban the Spam will be. Concerned consumers can support this anti-spam effort by signing the online petition at

Organizers will present the petitions as well as testimonials to the Federal Trade Commission as evidence that e-mail spam is harmful to consumers.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.  


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