Why Canning “Spam” Is a Bad Idea

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Everyone hates getting "spam." But does everyunsolicited commercial e-mail deserve that derogatorylabel? Unsolicited e-mail can be annoying, butaddressing the issue legislatively will create morehassles than does spam itself. It's not apparent thatbusinesses selling legitimate products have any lessright to use e-mail than anyone else, and laws targetingonly the most egregious spam won't work,because perpetrators will simply relocate offshore.Spam legislation will create legal and regulatoryhassles for mainstream companies, even as theyincreasingly embrace "opt-in," permission-based e-mail,which gives consumers the ability not to becontacted unless they want to be.

The basic instructions to Internet users worriedabout spam will always apply: Avoid posting your e-mailaddress, set up a "junk" e-mail account, andnever respond to spam. Join services that take youoff mailing lists. Increasingly, e-mail filtering canchange the default, for those who want it, fromtoday's "everything reaches your mailbox unlessyou say no" to "nothing comes in unless you sayyes." Even the development of "postage" that shiftscosts back to the spammer seems plausible.

We do not know what will ultimately count as"unsolicited" or "commercial" e-mail. Questionsmay include the status of political e-mailings orinformational newsletters that link to for-profitWeb sites or contain embedded ads. Even pop-upads on the Web might become suspect in the aftermathof spam legislation.

At bottom, spam legislation kicks open thedoor to further regulation of business communications.That is risky, because marketing is essentialto the growth of tomorrow's online servicesand technologies.

Financial remedies would create incentives forenforcers to go on "spam hunts," looking for evilembedded in every e-mail. That threat would keepmany legitimate businesses out of Internet marketingaltogether. Legislation, and the flurry of litigationthat would result, should not be allowed tointerfere with the complex relationships betweenbusinesses, consumers, and more than 5,000Internet service providers.

Finally, legislative bans on false e-mail returnaddresses and bans on software that can hide identifyinginformation would have significant implicationsfor anonymous speech--a cornerstone of ourRepublic. Strange as it may sound, spam and theuse of "spamware" are means by which individualscan maintain a cloak of anonymity.

The regulation of spam would make it all tooeasy to impede solicited mail, unsolicited mail that isnonetheless welcome, legitimate commerce, emergingInternet innovations, and even free speech.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. is director of technology studies at the Cato Institute.