Internet Essays
by Dean Wallraff



The anti-spam forces have raised their profile lately, with Harris Interactive's and Yesmail's suits against Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (MAPS). They argue that the unrestrained proliferation of unsolicited commercial e-mail will ruin the effectiveness of the Internet mail system, and that e-mail is different from postal mail because, with the former, the recipient pays part of the cost. I agree with the first of these arguments but find the second one specious.
     The root of the problem is that sending spam is very cheap. Bulk e-mail addresses cost tens of dollars per million, and a single PC with a DSL connection can send hundreds of thousands per day. Contrast this with postal mail or opt-in direct e-mail, which cost around 20 cents per message. Besides, spam is effective. Who among us can claim never to have bought from a spammer?
      But I'd rather delete an e-mail than throw away a direct-mail piece. It's quicker, and wastes only bits, instead of trees. I'd much rather hit the delete key than receive a telemarketing call, which wastes too much of the most precious commodity of all - my time. The monetary cost to me and to my service providers to receive an e-mail is minuscule, comparable to the cost of sending it. It takes just a bit of bandwidth, CPU power and storage space.
      My company, an Internet retailer, maintains an opt-in customer e-mail list for its monthly newsletter. We are careful to remove from the list everyone who requests removal, but we have fallen afoul of the anti-spam vigilantes a few times. The most virulent kind of e-mail fundamentalist comes from the ranks of chief Internet wonks at small Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Some of these folks take glee in harassing commercial e-mailers, and would much rather cause trouble for us than simply get their name taken off our mailing list. Furthermore, with any e-mail list, some of those that subscribe will have forgotten that they did so, and will cry "spam."
      One of the things they can do is to report us to the MAPS, which maintains a list of the IP addresses of purported spammers. Over a thousand ISPs subscribe to their service, using their filter, refusing to accept e-mail from the IP addresses on the list. It is inconvenient to be on this list, as my company found out a couple of years ago. We had customers to whom we couldn't send any e-mail, even the regular, one-message-at-a-time kind This is an unfair abuse of power, since we didn't do anything wrong, we were never spammers, and we always honored remove requests.
      An argument used by the anti-spam forces to justify the MAPS is that the service providers who own their networks have a right to control what traffic flows across them. This is like telephone company A refusing to allow incoming calls from telephone company B because some of company B's customers are telemarketers. E-mail has become as important as telephone service and should be universally available like the telephone. We are now preventing person A from e-mailing person B because person C has claimed, perhaps unfairly, that A's ISP has allowed unsolicited commercial e-mail to be sent from its mail server.
      The right solution is the ISP to let the individual subscriber control access to each e-mail account. Some ISP's already have anti-spam features like this. Individuals should be allowed to decide not to receive e-mail from whomever they choose. But the decision shouldn't be made by the ISP, or by a self-appointed arbiter like MAPS.

Copyright © 2000 - 2001 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.