Barely Legal

Q: I think I speak for the masses when I say I'm fed up with spam. I've tried a bunch of anti-spam filters, but the nasty buggers still slip through. Any chance our lawmaking pals will take some action?

Politicians are beginning to realize it's quite the public relations coup to be hailed as the "Spam Fighter," so they're floating lots of bills to curtail junk e-mail. Twenty-six states (not including New York, alas) already have anti-spam laws, from Delaware's zero-tolerance edict to several statutes requiring that the messages carry the tip-off "ADV" in the subject line. The real arena is Congress, where eight bills debuted during the latest session, and which has the clout to stymie spam once and for all. But don't think the end of herbal Viagra come-ons is nigh; there's big money in them thar spam, and some powerful lobbies will do their darndest to defang any new laws.

Spam's staunchest defender has been the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a trade group whose membership roster boasts IBM, AT&T, and The New York Times. The DMA's financial might—its political action committee has shelled out over $150,000 this election cycle—has helped put the kibosh on every congressional effort so far.

Smart lads that they are, however, the DMA folks have finally figured out that spam's gotten a wee bit out of hand, considering that approximately one-sixth of all e-mail qualifies as junk. So two weeks ago, at its annual convention, the DMA announced a backstep. The organization now wants laws requiring spammers to offer viable opt-out addresses; if you don't want to read about fantastic advances in penis enlargement, then you shouldn't have to.

But lots of anti-spam crusaders are none too impressed with the DMA's change of heart. "Now instead of being opposed to all spam laws, they're just opposed to reasonable ones," says John Levine, author of Internet Privacy for Dummies and a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE). "If you're getting 100 spams a day, well, life's too short to send 100 pleas to spammers begging them to stop." He also notes that one DMA proposal would allow spam from companies with whom you might have an "existing business relationship," a hazy phrase that's got "loophole" written all over it. Did you buy a one-day pass at a porno site back in 1998? That could entitle the entire adult entertainment industry to pound you with "My Barely Legal Friends" pitches forever. And ever.

Some states have entered the fray by targeting deceptive subject lines or return addresses. Washington State recently won a nearly $100,000 judgment against Jason Heckel, 28, an Oregon-based spammer who used subject lines like "For your review—HANDS OFF!" to lure recipients into opening his pitch for a $39.95 get-rich-quick manual. (Heckel, who ran the operation out of his parents' house and says he made a grand total of $680, is planning an appeal.)

CAUCE (cauce.org) argues that such measures don't go nearly far enough, since they effectively ban only the lamest of junk. The coalition favors allowing entire domains to bid ta-ta to spammers. If, say, villagevoice.com decreed it didn't want no junk, the pests who bombard Mr. Roboto with those grammatically shaky "CREATE PAYCHECK WITH YOU COMPUTER" appeals could be slapped with crushing fines.

The DMA would doubtless fight such a bill, and it'll have plenty of election-year chits to call in when the next Congress debuts. Mr. Roboto's sixth sense tells him a federal anti-spam measure will eventually pass, but it's going to be of the half-assed variety. It's the oldest of Beltway tales: Boy takes money, boy gets elected, boy softens anti-spam bill for sake of powerful lobby. Oh, and then boy crows about being a wonderful friend to the Digital Age consumer.


Think the bridge-and-tunnel set give a hoot about your snide remarks, all you downtown sophisticates? Check out njguido.com and think again. Judging by the photo gallery, the Jersey kids are perfectly happy to hang in Sayreville and Seaside Heights, where ripped abs, low-cut blouses, and Danny Tsettos music rule. The heartfelt journal entry "Guidette From Birth" is highly recommended. A few thousand more push-ups and Mr. Roboto will be ready for a night at Joey's in Clifton.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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