Five years ago, if I told you I had a spam (search) problem; you would have looked at me and said, "Well just don't eat it." Today everybody has a problem with spam, the flood of unsolicited email that clogs our email boxes daily, hawking everything from mortgage refinancing and herbal Viagra to pornography.
According to several participants at a three-day forum hosted by the Federal Trade Commission (search), spam has exploded in the last 18 months to the point where between 40-70 percent of email is spam. Three of the fiercest rivals in the technology sector, AOL (search), Microsoft (search) and Yahoo (search), have decided to team together to work on reducing the amount of spam originating from their own email systems, help each other track spammers who use their services and work more closely on technological solutions such as filters.
And Washington is concerned as well.
A few members of Congress addressed the FTC conference, each armed with new bills designed to fight this problem. As can be expected when consumers are concerned about an issue, politicians are lining up to offer "the" solution. Sen. Chuck Schumer (search) of New York is proposing a national "do not spam" list to be administered by the FTC. Similar to do not call lists, marketers would be required to refrain from emailing addresses on this list, or face penalties and fines. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (search) of California wants to provide bounties for consumers who apprehend illegal spammers. Sen. Conrad Burns (search) of Montana and Sen. Wyden (search) have legislation that recently passed the Senate Commerce Committee. It would require an opportunity for people to unsubscribe from future mailings, make falsifying the senders ID illegal and put in place stiff criminal penalties, including jail time for failing to comply. In all, there are about a dozen proposals floating around on Capitol Hill.
State lawmakers are trying to get into the act as well. Currently there are 29 states that have laws addressing spam and nearly every other is considering some proposal. Like the federal legislative proposals, some of these laws require a label in the subject, such as "ADV," indicating an advertisement, which allows you to filter out commercial email.
Other state proposals allow consumers and internet service providers like AOL and Earthlink (search) the ability to track and sue spammers and others.
These are all noble efforts, but legislative fixes have problems. In Utah, the Unsolicited Commercial and Sexually Explicit Email Act (search) has been nicknamed the "Trial Lawyers Full Employment Act" because it has resulted in a flood of lawsuits, with little reduction in spam. Another problem is that spammers in France don't care about laws in Virginia or in the United States.
Federal legislation may be needed at some point, but it is not the magic bullet needed to solve this problem. Fighting spam will involve a mix of industry leadership, technological innovation, consumer awareness, court action and some form of legislation.
While these proposals are being debated in the state capitols and here in Washington, the industry is working hard to fight spam. The alliance announced by Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo is a great sign that the industry is taking a leadership role. In addition, Earthlink, Microsoft and other ISPs have announced new features to their services to help consumers detect and filter spam. By working together, the tech industry can speed up the development of new technologies that will enable ISPs and consumers to stem the tide of spam and in some cases fight back.
These solutions will take time but consumers can take steps to protect themselves. As FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle (search) said at the Spam Forum, "awareness is a powerful weapon." Here are a few tips that consumers can follow to cut back on the amount of spam they receive:
--Try not to display your email in public. Spammers often harvest email addresses from websites, member directories for online services, newsgroups and chat rooms.
--Know to whom you are giving your email and what they will do it. Read privacy policies of websites (search) where you enter your address.
--Use multiple addresses. Dedicate one address for business, one for friends and another "disposable" address for everything else that you can turn off if it becomes a target.
-- Use an email filter (search). See magazines and websites for reviews of products.
-- Pick a unique address that makes it difficult for spammer's software to guess. 3johnx5_smith is more difficult to guess than johnsmith.
-- Report spam to the FTC by forwarding it to email@example.com and to your ISP and the senders' ISP.
While these steps won't solve all of your spam problems, they will reduce your exposure. And they are something you can do today.
Legislation, properly written, may be necessary as part of the overall solution to spam. But before Washington tries a "we know best" approach, they should look at what works in the real world. Maybe legislators can avoid some of the ineffective approaches in place right now such as the Utah law and fight back with targeted solutions that solve the spam problem without unintended consequences, like requiring accurate sender information and unsubscribe functions that actually work. To effectively fight this problem, we need consumers, lawmakers and the industry working together, not a flurry of bills designed to quell the masses without solving the problem.
Jim Prendergast is the executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership.