Politicians propose nearly dozen bills to eliminate unsolicited e-mails

By Gus Bode

The Pitt News (U. Pittsburgh)

PITTSBURGH (U-WIRE) – You’ve got – way too much – mail. And when the messages come to your e-mail account, with rapid abandon, from unknown or unwanted sources, they’re called “spam.”

Though e-mail spam has nothing to do with the Hormel canned food, it has everything to do with the first amendment, the loss of billions of dollars and, perhaps, the end of e-mail itself.

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From college students to politicians, most everyone with an e-mail account is affected by spam. E-mail spam has united the political right and left, to the point where there are nearly a dozen bills waiting to be passed that would curtail this problem.

The large number of unsolicited e-mails received this year by businesses could end up costing $10 billion, according to CBS.

Aside from the economic problem, created when a business’s e-mail quota is filled by spam and thus becomes disabled, there is the moral agenda behind the political crackdown on spam.

Children are the concern. 47 percent of all spam contains pornographic material, and 21 percent of children with e-mail access have been exposed to the pornographic images found in spam, according to a report and recent survey by Symantec, an anti-virus software company.

A recent anti-spam bill, supported by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., would create a national “do not spam” list that would work much like the national “do not call” list that was passed last year.

Offenders violating the spam list could face jail time and fines of up to $5,000, with harsher penalties for those who send pornography to minors.

When will a bill on spam be passed?

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“Probably not anytime soon,” according to Prof. George H. Pike, who specializes in Internet law and resources at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Free speech is at the heart of the issue,” Pike said, explaining that any regulation concerning the first amendment, which addresses free speech, “takes time.”

No laws regulating spam currently exist.

For now, individuals and institutions must take it upon themselves to regulate spam. E-mail filters are an option for account users, though they are notoriously imperfect.

Pitt has not yet applied an enterprise-wide filtering system to its e-mail service, Mulberry.

Most students do not know, however, that they can do so for free by obtaining a “student tool kit.” The kits are available at every campus-computing lab and contain a compact disc that enables filtering under the heading “e-mail client,” according to Jinx Walton, director of computing services.

Walton said she sees e-mail spam as “an annoyance,” but she believes people know to just delete the unwanted messages they’re receiving.

This was probably not a good solution for the Pitt professor who was receiving 16 e-mails an hour.

Geoff Bonina, the Web master for the English Writing department, described the professor’s situation.

“Spam is destroying e-mail,” said Bonina, who filters complaints from over-spammed faculty members every day.

Bonina said he did not know about any free filtering on Mulberry.

Students who have called the computing services help line might have been told to “install SpamCop at a cost of $9.99 a month.” This is inaccurate information, according to Walton, who said the SpamCop program does not cost anything. Instead, it’s a service to which people can report obscene or persistent e-mails.

SpamCop’s website does offer filtered e-mail accounts – for $30 a year.

Mass marketing – and the money it generates – may also be a force behind spam. Osterman Research, which publishes articles criticizing spam laws, pointed out that it helps “organizations [with]…messaging, directory and related products and services.”

Michael Osterman, who wrote the article, “The SPAM Act:it’s the new V-Chip,” said “10 minutes of online searching and $29.95 (or less) can buy you any of several very good client-side spam filters that are easy to install and very effective at stopping spam.”

Whether you’re looking at Osterman Research advertising or SpamCop, it is important to realize that they are both businesses that work through the Internet, and, as businesses, they essentially want your money – no matter which side of spam they are on.

Schumer reported that his research on e-mail spam suggests that next year, an average 100,000 unwanted e-mails will be sent to every e-mail user, if the rate of growth continues as it has in the past several years. E-mail users received an average of 40 spam messages in 1999; the average total should surpass 2,500 this year.

A new digital copyright act, in addition to one passed in 1998, may be necessary to regulate spam on a federal level if the anti-spam bills pass, Pike said. As he discussed the intricacies of such an amendment, several pieces of mail appeared on his screen in Russian, a language he does not speak.

“This is spam,” Pike said.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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