Spam bills have unlikely supporter

There's something wrong with proposed anti-spam legislation when one of the country's foremost spammers supports its passage. In May, self-proclaimed 'email mass marketer' Ronnie Scelson testified before a US Senate Committee, supporting bills wending their way through Congress.

There's something wrong with proposed anti-spam legislation when one of the country's foremost spammers supports its passage. In May, self-proclaimed "email mass marketer" Ronnie Scelson testified before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in a hearing about possible spam legislation. He supports bills that are wending their way through Congress.

Most would agree that laws are needed to limit unsolicited commercial email. In the current absence of a federal law, at least 30 states have passed or are considering spam legislation. However, because email doesn't stop at state lines, trying to address the issue on a state-by-state basis is futile. Some would argue that simply addressing spam on a national basis isn't enough and that we need an international treaty governing spam.

Take heart, for our federal legislators are attempting to act on the problem. In the 108th Congress, there are no fewer than nine bills under consideration by the Senate or House of Representatives. Among them are the Anti-Spam Act of 2003, CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and Reduction in Distribution of Spam Act of 2003.

With all the attention lawmakers are giving to anti-spam laws, you'd think that the owner of Scelson Online Marketing would be running scared. On the contrary, he says the bills legitimise his business and protect him from the bullying tactics of anti-spam groups.

The crux of the issue is the opt-out provision. Most of the legislative proposals allow for the existence and distribution of commercial email, as long as there is a provision for recipients to opt out of receiving further notices from that sender or his agents.

From a consumer standpoint, that means that you or I must respond to each piece of spam to initiate the opt-out procedure with that particular sender. The fact is, opting out is more work than simply deleting the message.

From the marketer's standpoint, the opt-out procedure lets him weed out the people who absolutely aren't interested in his messages, leaving him with "good" addresses. It also makes it perfectly legal to continue to send messages to people who don't say "take me off your list."

Long lists of anti-spam groups, including the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email and JunkBusters, oppose the legislation based on the premise of opt-out.

Other countries, including Australia, are going to the other extreme, saying that recipients must opt in to a mass marketer's mailing list. For a spammer, getting intended recipients to opt in is a heck of a lot harder than letting them opt out. That's one reason Scelson and other email mass marketers like the US proposals.

Scelson raised some interesting points during his testimony to Congress. He says that ISPs have blocked his mail, and thus "the individual has lost the right to get any email he wants." OK, it's a stretch, but I can buy that. I'm not sure I want MSN or AOL deciding which emails I should get.

Scelson also says he and other marketers like him simply will move offshore if their businesses are regulated too harshly in the US. This threat underscores the fact that email is a global phenomenon and it must be looked at on a global basis. No matter the shortcomings of the current crop of legislation, I welcome anything that is done to try to limit this beast we call spam. We need to start taking legislative baby steps and then amend the laws later if they are found to be ineffective. The cost of dealing with spam has become astronomical. I don't deny Scelson and his peers the right to make a legitimate living in this country. However, you and I, and our employers and ISPs, shouldn't bear the brunt of the cost of his business, and we shouldn't be forced to receive his messages if we don't want them.

Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a Houston technology consulting firm.

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