April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

Funding an anti-spam effort

Something this good had to have a downside, and spam is such an infuriating Achilles’ heel that it threatens to destroy this marvelous technology.

New technologies bring new challenges. And the better technology, the greater the effort some make to abuse it. So it is with e-mail, the subject of this month’s cover story.

E-mail’s importance cannot be overstated. It is often the preferred way that we communicate with friends and associates, send and receive vital documents, and transact business. Most of us sent our first e-mail only a dozen years ago, and yet today we can hardly imagine operating without it.

Something this good had to have a downside, and spam is such an infuriating Achilles’ heel that it threatens to destroy this marvelous technology. Still, since putting a name to it three years ago, we have done little to arrest spam. Sure, we now use myriad spam filters, but you realize their shortcomings once you’ve inadvertently blocked a confirmation for an e-ticket or a communication from a partner about a business deal.

Efforts by the major ISPs haven’t been much more effective. A few months ago, AOL began making a big deal about its war on spam. It made it very easy for members to report spam, and it began blocking all messages from servers that received what AOL deemed as too many spam complaints-even if those servers were only sending electronic messages that were requested by the recipients and which contained identification and opt-out information required by law. Meanwhile, professional spammers often escape such simplistic blocking mechanisms by sending spam from computers they routinely hack into around the world.

Then there is the new federal anti-spam law that took effect in January. It allows ISPs to sue spammers-and the first big civil suit has just been filed-but that remedy is a particularly ineffective one when you consider the ephemeral nature of spam. Congress gave the FTC the ability to enforce the new law with stiff criminal penalties, including jail time, but the agency was granted a paltry $12 million for anti-spam law enforcement. But with a $500 billion annual federal deficit, who in Congress or the Administration is willing to grant the money that’s really needed to clean up the e-mail mess?

There is a growing chorus of voices calling for commercial e-mail users to pay some small fraction of a cent for every e-mail they transmit to fund a serious anti-spam enforcement effort. There is merit to their argument: Those who benefit from using e-mail should contribute to protect it. But let us remember that there are many and often conflicting commercial interests at stake with the Internet and e-mail. The idea that the big ISPs should collect and oversee the use of such an anti-spam fund fails to consider these conflicting interests.

In passing the CAN-Spam law, Congress identified a serious problem, properly defined what constitutes legitimate and unlawful use of e-mail technology and created penalties appropriate for the crime. What it should do now is levy a tax on commercial users of e-mail technology to fund a government effort to crack down on all forms of cyber-crime, including spam. This is a technology that surely merits a significant investment to defend its vital role in global commerce and information exchange. And it is the proper role of government to insure that public utilities vital to our welfare are protected from those who would abuse or destroy them. Government maintains our highway system through gasoline taxes. It regulates and protects our telephone networks with usage taxes. It does the same with the commercial airwaves and air routes. Why should e-mail be any different?


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