Return to Sender

E-mail spam has increased dramatically in just the past year, superclogging the electronic in-boxes of computer users. One study suggests nearly 4 out of 10 e-mail messages zinging over the Internet (at a rate of two per day for every person on the globe) are spam.

The cost of erasing all that cyber-garbage is huge. Ferris Research, a business consulting firm, estimates spam will cost US corporations $10 billion in 2003 alone. And, sadly, companies that provide Internet access began to get serious about it only when spam became costly to them.

But at least anti-spam efforts appear to be finally coalescing, and none too soon:

• A bill passed by Senate committee last week would create a national "Do Not Spam" list (similar to efforts to curtail telemarketing calls to home phones during dinner).

• Three other pending House and Senate bills would require that all spam contain accurate information as to who originated the e-mail and the content in the subject lines, and give recipients a way to "opt out" from getting e-mail from that vendor. But an "opt in" clause, where a citizen chooses to receive bulk e-mail, would obviously be even better, though that's not favored by the marketing industry.

• Antispammers find the problem so serious, they're taking legal action and pushing for criminal penalties. The world's largest Internet service provider, America Online (AOL), which reports more than half of the e-mail flowing through its portal is spam, filed no less than five lawsuits recently seeking some $10 million in damages, and asking for court orders to stop the spam.

• Microsoft filed 15 lawsuits last week in the US and Britain against individuals and businesses after identifying them as sending out more than 2 billion pieces of spam that hit its users' in-boxes.

• The British government is holding a "spam summit" July 1, and may call for a global body to fight spam.

In addition to legal action, the big ISPs have beefed up their spam-blocking mechanisms. Such blocking technologies aren't perfected yet, but they're beginning to help.

FTC commissioner Orson Swindle recently said nothing less than a combination of legislation, litigation, and technology will solve the problem. Indeed, lawsuits, combined with better technology and vigorous legislative efforts on Capitol Hill, should at least begin to stem the tide of spam.

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