Have tracking tools, will travel

Perhaps it was only coincidence that Stanford law professor Larry Lessig chose last week, the opening week of hunting season on wild turkeys, to propose legislation that would pay a bounty to private citizens who hunt down spammers.

          Perhaps it was only coincidence that Stanford law professor Larry Lessig chose last week, the opening week of hunting season on wild turkeys, to propose legislation that would pay a bounty to private citizens who hunt down spammers.

          Lessig, who persuaded California Representative Zoe Lofgren to pitch the idea to Congress, imagines a world in which white hat hackers put their skills to good use, revealing the names and address of marketers who spew the unwanted messages that now constitute 40% of all email. After tracking down the source of the spam, Lessig suggests, the hunters should alert the US Federal Trade Commission, which would investigate, fine the culprits and reward the hunter with 20 percent of that fine.

          "It’s like bounty hunters in the old West," Lessig reportedly told a gathering of Stanford law students. "You bring ‘em in and get the bounty."

          Sounds simple. And the law professor is so confident that the bounty system will work that he offered to quit his job if the bill is passed and fails to substantially reduce spam.

          Lofgren’s bill has several promising provisions, such as requiring bulk unsolicited email to include the tag "ADV:" in its subject line and requiring marketers to include a way for recipients to opt out, but the bounty proposal may the most promising.

          There is little dispute that the government lacks the resources to hunt down and prosecute spammers, but with the tech economy stuck in park, many thousands of graduating computer science majors should have plenty of free time.

          One problem with Lessig’s idea, some observers said, is its potential to take what should be an orderly law enforcement process and turn it into a vigilante free-for-all. That argument was more persuasive before last Friday, when the two participants in an FTC forum on spam, a Florida lawyer and an anti-spam activist, went at each other and had to be forcibly separated by FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle.

          This week, it’s clear that the spam vs anti-spam dialogue is already a vigilante free-for-all. What then, is the downside of encouraging hackers to track down spammers? Should the FTC pay bounty hunters to bring 'em in? Or has Larry Lessig lost his mind? Tell us what you think.

          Jahnke manages the content and editorial vision of Darwinmag.com and CIO.com.

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