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COLUMN

Can Spam? Not

W. Victoria Lee

Last time I checked, I am not in “massive debt,” I am not tense enough to need “soma,” I haven’t eaten enough junk food to need to lose 10 pounds in one week, and most certainly I don’t need to increase the size of my you-know-what. But I keep getting e-mails that try to convince me that I “can be without all that debt,” as if money would fall from the sky, and that I can “triple my size overnight,” despite my lack of that particular anatomical structure altogether.

Let’s face it. Spam is annoying and someone should stop it. Apparently my daily prayers and complaints have been answered because last month our President signed the first federal law to regulate spam, to go into effect at the beginning of this year. This action seems to call for applause. But judging from the unmitigated junk mails that continue to inundate our mailboxes, there’s no need to be excited after all.

The act was officially termed the “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003”, or the “CAN-SPAM Act” for short. Not a very fitting name. In fact, the name of the act seems to encourage more spamming. And what it does isn’t very impressive, either. It stipulates that spammers must clearly address the commercial purpose of their e-mails. Consider the fact that most spammers are already multiple law violators (fraud, for instance), labeling their messages seems to be the only guideline (or any guideline for that matter) that they followed. After all, it is not that difficult to get the gist of subtle subject headlines such as “instant hard-rock,” “double the pleasure,” or “be freed today.”

The law also requires the spammers to include an “opt-out feature” meaning you can actually tell the unsolicited e-mail marketers that you don’t need potency medications or pre-approved credit cards, ever. Wait, am I just silly or am I not understanding it right? People actually want to be spammed? Who in their right mind wants to see the “before & after” photos of Betty Sue, who had an excellent result with XXX brand meal plans?

But in a world where being spammed is the default, some options are better than none. Yet when you could spend a major portion of your precious time politely refusing these unwanted offers, a simple click of the “delete” button appears much more efficient. And the spammers won’t know that you actually don’t need that third mortgage or those fast-working diet pills and keep feeding your mailbox more info on their “once-in-a-lifetime” offers.

Cynics like me think of the law as a legal excuse for spammers to annoy you some more. Now as long as they made clear in the subject line that they are selling some famous tycoon’s daughter’s home video for only $19.99, and they include the opt-out feature so you can tell them you don’t need it because you’ve already seen it on the Internet for free, it is more legal than before for them to spam away.

Let’s admit it. The brand spanking new anti-spam law isn’t perfect. In fact, many argue that such a stipulation can potentially harm legitimate businesses that send out discount offers or monthly newsletters to their customers via e-mail. And most states have their own versions of the anti-spam law and the majority of these revolve around similar concepts of labeling and the “opt-out” feature (with the exception of few states with the “opt-in” feature). The fact that few have seen positive results with these state laws makes one question what good the federal law will do.

The truth is that this law introduces “new criminal penalties to assist in deterring the most offensive forms of spam” such as when you open an e-mail entitled “discount books” and X-rated pictures pop up on the screen. More importantly, this bill is only the beginning of the struggle between the mutilated spam victims versus the anonymous and hard-to-track-down spammers. As Federal Trade Commission Chair Tim Muris put it, “the solution [to the spam problem] will require technology, self-help, and enforcement.” In the meantime, just don’t reply to spam e-mails, keep setting up e-mail filters, and keep working that index finger and hitting those delete buttons.