Reprint permission from the August 4, 2003 issue of Crain's Chicago Business.
Every day, billions of junk e-mail messages, delivered in bulk, are tying up networks, choking servers and infuriating the public. By some estimates, unsolicited e-mail, commonly called spam, is costing U.S. businesses $10 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted bandwidth.
Yet, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has just signed a right-to-spam bill that the Illinois General Assembly unanimously passed this spring, and a federal full-employment-for-spammers law will probably be enacted before the year is out. Both the state and federal legislation are being promoted as anti-spam laws, but neither can be expected to stem the torrent of advertising flooding our electronic mailboxes.The Illinois law, which takes effect Jan. 1, does little more than make it easier to spot and delete spam. It mandates that subject lines for e-mail ads be labeled "ADV:" and for pornography be labeled "ADV: ADLT," shorthand for adult material. It also requires bulk e-mailers to offer toll-free phone numbers or return e-mail addresses so recipients can decline future solicitations.
As long as spammers follow the easy-to-live-with new rules, they will be welcome to continue doing business in Illinois, hawking get-rich-quick schemes and medical hoaxes and bombarding our kids' computers with sexually explicit images.
Congress has a similar take on the problem. A half-dozen bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to crack down on fraudulent spammers.
The House bill gaining the most steam is co-sponsored by two of Congress' savviest power brokers, Rep. Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Like the new Illinois law, their bill would let consumers opt out if they choose not to receive future e-mails from the marketers who spam them, and it would require valid return e-mail addresses and a clear identification that an e-mail is an advertisement.
The most popular spam legislation being debated in the Senate, a bill offered by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., takes a similar approach.
Some of the most relentless spammers in the country have joined forces with Internet service providers to ensure that advertising-friendly spam control becomes federal law. It's easy to explain why AOL Time Warner Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. and other Internet titans support the legislation. Their customers, who initiate tens of thousands of unsolicited e-mails every day, would continue to be free to spam.
If Congress really wants to stamp out spam, it shouldn't force us to remove our names from every e-mail list we find ourselves on. Instead, it should simply ban all commercial e-mail sent to people who haven't requested it.
That's the tack the European Union has taken. By Oct. 31, all EU members will outlaw bulk e-mails to individuals who haven't expressly asked for them.
The United States should be leading the effort to curb spam, not quashing it.
Marc J. Lane ([email protected]) is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law.
Copyright © 2003 by Crain Communications Inc.