You can stop spam

With all the problems that Windows throws at us, every PC user I know must also deal with another pain as well: spam.

A lot has been written about spam -- unsolicited commercial e-mail -- but the problem is increasing exponentially and it's time for a new approach. That's what I'm going to propose.

BrightMail, which sells spam-filtering services, says spam almost tripled from 2000 to 2001. Gartner Inc. says, "Spam increased at least fivefold during 2001" (www3.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?doc_cd=103693).

Imagine how much spam you'll soon receive if the quantity is tripling or quintupling every year. Cauce.org, an anti-spam group, says if only 1 percent of the 24 million businesses in the United States decides to send you merely one message per year, you'll receive 657 spams a day. Try opting out of that.

Surprisingly -- despite the clear danger that our inboxes will become useless, crippling our communications -- most governments haven't outlawed mass e-mail. Americans can thank, among others, the Direct Mail Association (www.the-dma.org), which lobbies against an effective ban.

The creeping belief that bulk e-mail is acceptable is making spam growth rates take off. The U.S. government years ago outlawed commercial faxes, because they cost the recipient money and time. But the same argument hasn't yet banned spam, which its apologists confuse with "free speech." It isn't free speech, and here's why:

It costs the recipient money. EarthLink, the Internet service provider, estimates that 10 percent to 30 percent of the e-mail traffic that ISPs carry is spam. This doesn't include the labor costs of engineers and programmers who must deal with spam, for which the company says it pays millions of dollars per year. You pay for this as part of your monthly ISP bill.

It costs the recipient money. In February, AT&T WorldNet's e-mail systems were paralyzed for more than 24 hours by an overload of bulk e-mail. And it isn't only ISPs that get shut down. Users of free Hotmail accounts, for example, face a 2MB storage limit on their inboxes. Spam can push you over this threshold in a few days, causing important messages to be rejected. Many Hotmail users must now pay US$19.95 per year for extra storage space to keep their addresses from refusing mail.

It costs the recipient money. In local areas and hotels where dial-up access isn't free, spam costs you real dollars. In Europe, where most calls are charged by the minute, consumers pay an estimated US$8.8 billion a year downloading spam (http://europa.eu.int/comm/internal_market/en/dataprot/studies/spam.htm). As a result, spam has been outlawed by Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, and Germany -- but not the United States.

Anti-spam filters are partially effective. But I'll share with you next week a more direct solution.

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