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E-mail spam opens campaign season

April 3, 2002

First, glossy political hit pieces were stuffed in mail boxes. Then came programmed pre-recorded phone messages from candidates at all hours of the day. Now, Californians -- and voters across America -- may face a new barrage of unwanted political appeals: campaign e-mails invading in-boxes alongside spam for porn sites and pyramid schemes.

The newest front in the state's political wars was opened last month by Secretary of State Bill Jones, who broke a political taboo in California by sending out more than a million spam e-mail pleas for votes in his failed bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

His decision to embrace the controversial tactic could signal a collapse of the thin wall of privacy that has protected e-mail boxes from the slew of political messages that overwhelm television sets, telephones and mail boxes during campaign season.

``I think, quite frankly, this is the beginning of a very large and very active way that politicians in the future will be communicating to the electorate,'' said Sean Walsh, a Jones campaign consultant. ``As water seeks the ocean, you'll see the same thing.''

Just how quickly the floodgates will open is unclear. At least one other California campaign used a version of e-mail spam in the March 5 primary election, but Jones drew so much criticism that other candidates might steer clear of the tactic for fear it could backfire.

``This is literally going to be a textbook case,'' said Michael Cornfield, an associate research professor with George Washington University's Democracy Online Project, who is using the Jones story as a cautionary tale in a new book on political campaigns.

Online furor

When Jones hired an outside company to send a third batch of spam to a million people March 1, the Internet company shut down his Web site, leaving the struggling campaign without its most visible asset in the final, frenetic days. On Election Day, Jones came in third in the race won by political novice Bill Simon.

Although Jones defends the tactic as innovative, it was criticized by anti-spam activists, academics and some political consultants.

``It's a bad way to campaign,'' said Shabbir J. Safdar, a co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns in Washington, D.C. ``You annoy the very people you are trying to woo.''

In Internet communities, e-mail spam stirs up passions. Many states, including California, have rules meant to curb spam that peddles porn sites, pyramid schemes and more. Despite such laws, spam constantly gums up e-mail boxes, and political messages are not covered by such regulations.

Even so, politicians have avoided the tactic until recently.

In 1998, a Democratic consultant from San Francisco shelved a plan to send out a half-million e-mail slate cards with a list of candidates to support after news reports generated a groundswell of opposition.

Also that year, a Democratic state senator in Georgia running for governor was forced to apologize after sending out 500 unsolicited e-mails that prompted angry phone calls instead of enthusiastic support.

This year, Jones took the tactic to a new level.

To get his message out, Jones hired an Internet company to e-mail a million potential voters. But the e-mail misfired, ending up in computers as far away as Ohio, Canada and Russia -- irking people who couldn't even vote for Jones.

To make matters worse, the e-mails were apparently routed through an unwitting Korean elementary school. It's a common tactic by spam specialists, who find unsecured Web servers around the world to skirt filters for unwanted e-mail.

Despite the outrage, the Jones campaign defends the spam as a cutting-edge approach to reaching voters with serious, substantive information instead of superficial 30-second TV commercials.

Jones wasn't the only candidate to use spam. In Orange County a new marketing company called NuWays packed glitzy, TV-like 20-second commercials into e-mails for several candidates.

NuWays said it sent more than 200,000 e-mail ads for a write-in candidate in a high-profile Orange County campaign where the incumbent judge was accused of child molestation. The write-in candidate got more votes than the judge, and the race is headed for a November runoff.

``This technology has the power to influence the outcome of a political campaign,'' said John Horne, NuWays vice president for marketing.

Walsh, a Jones campaign consultant, said he had no second thoughts about the e-mails, explaining that the ability to cheaply reach voters far outweighed the small amount of criticism.

In fact, Walsh and the Jones team were so angry about their Web site being taken down that they are contemplating suing the Internet companies for stifling their constitutional right to free speech.

But Atlantech Online and VirtualSprockets, the Maryland companies that provided the home and technical expertise for the Jones Web site, made it clear that they would not tolerate spam. Both state in their policies that they take a ``zero tolerance'' approach to spam.

`New frontier'

``This is definitely the new frontier,'' said Geoff Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, who heads the commission.

Because the tactic is so new, many high-profile campaigns are reluctant to dive in before others test the waters a bit more. Spokesmen for Simon and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis said their campaigns have no plans to follow Jones' lead.

``No one says thank you for sending this,'' said Gabriel Sanchez, a Davis campaign spokesman. ``People just get angry, and it doesn't look like it would work for us.''

By Dion Nissenbaum, San Jose Mercury News. Copyright © 2001 tallahassee and wire service sources.


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