Spam slayer: Doublespeak in the spam wars

SAN FRANCISCO (10/06/2003) - This new weekly online column chronicles the spam wars and offers advice. Send your spam gripes, questions, and favorite tips for stopping spam and tips for stopping spam to spamwatch@pcworld.com. As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome. Return to the SpamWatch page for more articles.

What do Eminem, Ben Affleck and Scott Richter have in common? They all made Details magazine's top ten list of the most influential and powerful men under 38.

Who is Scott Richter? He's the Internet's poster boy for spam. Richter is Chief Executive Officer of OptInRealBig.com, a US$18-million-a-year concern that sends out zillions of e-mail messages every day hawking adult porn, Viagra and mortgages.

The good news is that the powerful Richter says he endorses curbing spam and creating an industry code of ethics. He is president of the E-mail Marketing Association, a group that says it wants to work with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to help stop spam and build consumer trust.

But Richter's antispam rhetoric appears to go only so far. He calls California's aggressive new antispam law (formerly Senate Bill 186) and many of the other state laws that regulate spam "stupid." Richter says Optinrealbig.com has relationships with its e-mail recipients and complies with California law. He says he supports efforts to stop unwanted email, but not if it hamstrings his business.

"I support antispam initiatives," Richter says. "I always will. But not if they are asinine." Richter estimates he has spent $150,000 to fight antispam laws in the past two years. He says he will fight for his mass e-mailing rights even all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Which Side Are They On?

Ironically, many companies find themselves on both sides of the spam wars. E-tailers both defend spam and fight it.

For example, many e-mail marketers speak out against things like Viagra spam, but want to be able to send their own messages. They see a distinction between unsolicited e-mails from L.L. Bean hawking sweaters, and unsolicited e-mail from suspected scammers. Marketers also distinguish between unwanted spam and e-mail promotions from a business that already has a customer relationship with the recipient.

Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc. have also fought both for and against spam. They enact filters and policies to protect their subscribers, but want to retain the right to send out their own unsolicited promotions.

AOL representatives spoke in favor of antispam legislation at a California state senate hearing last spring. But AOL lobbyist Cliff Berg also urged the state to not make the laws too restrictive. AOL wants to be able to send unsolicited e-mail to its own customers, especially when the Internet Service Provider (ISP) is being paid by the e-tailer.

That opt-in proposal, Senate Bill 12, was an early favorite. However, the measure was opposed by both AOL and Microsoft and was eventually killed in favor of SB 186, which became law--and was endorsed by Microsoft.

Maybe SB 186 drew Microsoft's backing because it worked in an exemption for Hotmail. E-marketers can send e-mail to recipients with whom they have a "preexisting or current business relationship."

The new law does require marketers to offer an opt-out mechanism, however, it also states: "This opt-out provision does not apply to recipients who are receiving free e-mail service with regard to commercial e-mail advertisements sent by the provider of the e-mail service."

Choosing Battles

In August the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which represents about 4,700 companies, began an antispam campaign called Operation Slam Spam. Its goal is to shut down the most wretched abusers of bulk e-mail.

But DMA doesn't support legislation at the state level, says Louis Mastria, DMA's director of public and international affairs. Mastria called the California bill and other state antispam initiatives "foolish" and "naive."

"We feel spam is a national and global problem that can't be solved with a patchwork of state laws," Mastria says. The DMA's e-mail marketing guidelines don't define spam. Neither does the organization support policies and legislation that would give people the right to opt out of e-mailings, according to Mastria.

Spam Q&A

Question: Spam is horrible, but all this pornography in my in-box is absolutely ridiculous. I do not want kids to be viewing it. Why can't someone stop these people? In the meantime, how do I protect myself and kids?

--M.M.B.

Answer: Porno spam exacts a particularly disgusting toll out of many recipients. Protecting you (or your kid) from exposure to spammers peddling filth is hard, but not impossible. First, install and run a good spam filter program. All commercial spam filters block adult content, if they can identify it. At the very least, use the filter tools that come with most e-mail programs.

You can try other steps as well, but you may have to switch e-mail clients. Microsoft says neither its Outlook nor Outlook Express block images from appearing in the body of e-mail messages. However, the recently revamped Eudora and the Netscape browser let you display messages only as text if you choose.

With Netscape Mail, simply select View/Message Body As and select "Simple Text." In the latest free version of Eudora, go to Tool/Options/View Mail and uncheck "Use Microsoft Viewer." Then, go to Eudora's menu option Tool/Options/Choices/Display and uncheck "Automatically download HTML graphics."

Question: Can anything be done to stop spam? I dump 250 plus pieces of junk each day from my e-mail. I don't even bother to look at it. I don't have time. There should be a law against spam.

--Vince M.

Answer: We've been hearing a lot from spam victims desperately seeking relief. The bad news is, proposed antispam laws have fallen short. The good news is that you can ease spam off your daily menu by investing a little time and cash.

PC World has reviewed the top six spam utilities. PCWorld.com's downloads section also offers a collection of free and fee-based spam-fighting tools.

If your ISP is MSN, AOL or EarthLink, you already have a spam filter you might not be using. Each of these ISPs provides free spam-filtering tools, although you might have to download the latest version of their client software to take advantage of it.

Sadly, no law is a silver bullet for spam. About three dozen states are considering laws to curb spam, but none have done much good yet. California's antispam law, considered the most aggressive yet, takes effect January 1. But spam is a global problem, and can't be deterred by a single state.

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