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Let's Make Spam Illegal

Nobody likes spam and yet it keeps filling our mailboxes. People have been talking about banning it since the dawn of the Internet, but it keeps coming. It's time to end this annoyance. We're talking about spam, the unsolicited commercial e-mail. It's all those ``lose weight quick,'' ``get free cable TV'' and adult website solicitations you get.

Every year, members of Congress introduce bills. They talk. The press writes. And they approve no new law on spam.

It's incredible to me that Congress doesn't act on this issue. Spam is the toxic waste of e-mail and it continues endlessly.

Interestingly, 18 states have passed laws. From what I can tell, their net effect has been about zero.

These state legislatures have focused their anti-spam laws against spammers who falsify things like the point of origin or routing information of their messages. Many of these states also prohibit the sale or distribution of software designed for the primary purpose of faking the point of origin or routing information of their messages.

These are all good ideas, but a state-by-state approach hasn't worked and isn't going to work. It's going to take a federal effort to help with the problem. Even that's not foolproof because spam can originate from outside the country, too.

My solution is simple. Let's just make spam illegal. We did it with faxes and it's helped although not cured the problem of unsolicited commercial faxes.

Interestingly, the way Congress wrote the junk fax law, you could even interpret it to include e-mail, but it's not being used that way. The law says that, ``It shall be unlawful for any person within the United States to use any telephone facsimile machine, computer or other device to send an unsolicited advertisement to a telephone facsimile machine.'' So far, that wouldn't seem to include e-mail. We generally use the word e-mail to mean something different from a ``telephone facsimile machine.''

Congress defined ``telephone facsimile machine'' more broadly than the English language does. Under the law, ``The term `telephone facsimile machine' means equipment which has the capacity (A) to transcribe text or images, or both, from paper into an electronic signal and to transmit that signal over a regular telephone line, or (B) to transcribe text or images (or both) from an electronic signal received over a regular telephone line onto paper.''

Hey -- e-mails slide right into that definition if you take the time to read it carefully. Still, I feel like I'm the only one pushing to use this old statute this way.

So, we need a new law that's directed right at spam. Let's make sending it illegal. Let's make the penalties huge. Then, the law should encourage class actions and give state attorneys general and the FTC authority to bring enforcement actions.

I want everyone to have the right to enforce this law. Let's make the spammers miserable. Then, legitimate commercial e-mail that you asked for, like ones from your favorite airline telling you about this week's specials, stand a chance of being noticed and read.

Not all commercial e-mail is spam. The difference between the legitimate and the illegitimate is ``unsolicited.''

If you want to promote your business online, you should -- just do it the right way. People who are interested in your message will be more than happy to opt-in to receiving your e-mails. When they register to use your website or buy something from you online, ask them to check a box if they want to receive offers from you. It's legitimate and good business.

An interesting side issue is, should your web form default to requesting promotional e-mails or not. My reaction is that most people have come to expect it to default to getting the e-mail and aren't offended by that. It's easy enough to check the other box.

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