May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

Spam is not SARS

The reaction against spam in some quarters is so extreme it compromises the very future of e-commerce.

States are legislating against it. The Federal Trade Commission last month held high-profile and contentious hearings to determine if it should be regulated at the federal level. And IS gurus everywhere are arming corporate computer systems with software designed to find and kill it.

It is spam, and those opposed to it have created a national frenzy in an attempt to stop it. The anti-spammers act as though spam is a plague that demands the same type of preventive action as SARS. They rail against it as an invasion of privacy, an outside threat to the integrity of corporate computer networks, a menace to anyone trying to send or receive “legitimate” e-mail, and an evil that exposes the security issues that make up the soft underbelly of the Internet. The most fanatic of the anti-spam zealots equate the transmission of all unsolicited commercial e-mail messages to mail fraud. They have so stigmatized the practice that even legitimate e-mail marketers have cowered and have abandoned e-mail marketing.

The reaction against spam in some quarters is so extreme it compromises the very future of e-commerce. The branding of all unsolicited e-mail as illegitimate restricts the promise of the Internet, and the effort to remove every last bit of it is a cure that is worse than the disease. This is surely not the outcome that inspired the visionaries of e-commerce.

I do not side with the e-mail marketers who want no government regulation. E-mail marketing must be tamed; it can no longer operate as the wild West did. Certain abuses, such as the unauthorized use of someone’s e-mail address to camouflage the true source of e-mail promotions or the distribution of pornographic and other blatantly offensive material, cry out for regulation.

But what of the e-mail promotions sent from companies who rent outside e-mail lists containing good prospects for their products? E-mail promotions sent to those lists are unsolicited, and technically can be considered spam. But let’s say the rented list came from an online vendor of flower seeds and was rented by an online seller of flower pots for the purpose of promoting products to an audience likely to be interested in them. And let’s say the promotion identifies where the list came from and allows the recipient to opt-out of future promotions.

Some purists would label those e-mail promotions as spam and forbid them. If they succeed, they will have done far more harm to Internet commerce than the most egregious practitioners of spamming. To argue that there is no place on the Internet for unsolicited e-mail is to deny direct marketers privileges on the web that they have enjoyed in the mail and over the phones. If the same prohibition were applied to the mails, it might well be the nail in the coffin of the U.S. Postal Service. If applied to telemarketing, a multi-billion dollar industry would be decimated. In both instances, commerce in the U.S. would be seriously disrupted.

Regulating e-mail marketing to prevent obvious abuses is one thing; eliminating all unsolicited e-mail is massive over-reaction to the problem. Such a prohibition restricts free enterprise, not to mention free speech. It is anti-competitive because it restricts companies from using Internet marketing to expand their customer base. And because it prevents the responsible use of a marvelous new technology, a total prohibition of unsolicited e-mail marketing violates freedoms that make the U.S. economy the strongest in the world.

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