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Junk e-mail under attack


March 7, 2001

Ohio legislators will consider a bill next week that would limit the use of unsolicited e-mail messages by advertisers.

For computer users, so-called ''spam'' e-mail is the cyberspace equivalent of a telemarketing phone call or a flier left on a windshield.

''I receive a ton of it, every day,'' said Judith Daniels, Hyde Park. ''Everything from off-shore bank accounts to money-making schemes to pornography. More than 50 percent of the e-mail I get every day is not for me.''

Many computer users get at least a half-dozen unwanted e-mails every day, according to an informal survey of Internet users in Greater Cincinnati Tuesday evening, and some get many more.

''The minute I don't recognize who sent the message, I delete it,'' said Bob Kursmark of Blue Ash, who received six ''spam'' e-mails Tuesday.

Anti-spam crusaders liken spam e-mails to collect calls from telemarketers or advertising circulars sent postage due. The recipient, not the sender, pays for the e-mail in bandwidth space and wasted time.

''Unsolicited e-mail is very attractive to advertisers, because you don't have to pay for a phone call or lick a stamp,'' said Ray Everett-Church, counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail, an Internet-based volunteer organization.

Under the bill pending in the Ohio Senate, unsolicited e-mail must provide the sender's name, address and a way for the receiver to request an end to the e-mail messages. If the receiver makes this request and still gets e-mail, he can sue the sender for up to $100 per message.

The bill was passed by the Economic Development, Technology & Aerospace Committee Tuesday by a 6-to-1 vote and could go before a full vote of the Senate as early as next week, said Lisa Peterson, a Senate spokeswoman.

''I think the bill's unconstitutional -- I'm almost certain it is,'' said Sen. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, who cast the dissenting vote. ''It's an attempt to regulate interstate commerce, and that's something that the Supreme Court has said should be left to the U.S. Congress.''

Anti-spam activists say this law will do little to prevent the e-mails from piling up - and may actually encourage more.

''The Ohio law, as it was put forward, is unworkable,'' said Tom Geller, founder and administrator of the Suespammers Project. ''It's an opt-out law, meaning whenever someone spams you you have to write back and tell them not to spam you anymore.''

E-mail users are already familiar with the concept, as many unsolicited e-mails include directions on how to ''unsubscribe'' to the e-mail service. But the process is often confusing, time-consuming or just doesn't work, Geller said.

It's usually easier just to delete the e-mail - which makes Ohio's proposed law useless, Geller said.

''Spam is what's called the 'tragedy of the common,' '' Geller said. ''Each person is h urt very little, but the aggregate damage is enormous. Spam costs billions of dollars a year in lost bandwidth, lost time and the need to buy more equipment to handle the increased e-mail volume.''

Geller's Suespammers Project reviews proposed state and federal laws aimed at limiting spam. He said Ohio would do better to model its law on California, an ''opt-in'' law that prevents advertisers from sending messages to computer users who didn't ask for them.

In fact, the Ohio law does little more than legitimize the practice of sending unsolicited e-mail messages, said Everett-Church.

''The biggest concern is that if there are laws like the one being discussed in Ohio, where essentially it is permissible to send unsolicited e-mail as long as you include an opt-out, that gives the green light to every other company to start sending unsolicited advertisements for their products,'' he said.

Users who aren't deluged with unsolicited bulk e-mail may find their virtual mailboxes stuffed in the coming months: Hotmail.com, a free e-mail service offered by Microsoft, is combining its subscribers' e-mail addresses with Infospace's Internet White Pages directory: giving telemarketers, e-mail spammers and direct-mail advertisers access to not just e-mail accounts, but telephone numbers and home addresses too.

''A good law against spam isn't going to turn all spam off tomorrow, but it is going to send the message that unsolicited e-mail is not an appropriate advertising method because it shifts costs to recipients rather than being borne by senders,'' Everett-Church said.

© 2001 Craig Garretson, The Cincinnati Post


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