John Mozena is no computer nerd, but he does like to cruise the Web. One day after a particularly gripping Detroit Tigers game, he went online to compare notes with other Tigers fans in a chat room. When he left, he had a an e-mail message waiting.
It was from an online betting service he'd never heard of. They'd scavenged his address off the chat room board.
"I was furious," he says. "I sent along an e-mail complaining, and they said, 'Hey, deal with it, there's nothing you can do.' And there wasn't."
Mr. Mozena had just been "spammed." That's Internet jargon for electronic junk mail. Nicknamed for the Hormel Co.'s product, spam consists mostly of commercial pitches for porno Web sites, shady pyramid schemes, and questionable penny stocks.
It's the cheapest direct-marketing tool in the world. And with tens of millions of messages being sent every day, spam is growing so rapidly it now threatens to clog cyberspace and alienate millions of online users. As a result, Congress appears ready to join a handful of states in trying to put the brakes on the spamming industry.
"[The Internet] shouldn't be a haven for every huckster looking to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge," says Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska.
In the next several weeks Senator Murkowski and Sen. Robert Toricelli (D) of New Jersey will introduce an antispamming bill designed to give consumers and Internet providers more control over what ends up in their own e-mail boxes.
A real return address
It would require anyone sending a commercial e-mail to identify themselves honestly. That might seem self-evident, but as the antispam movement has grown, shady operators have started falsifying their return addresses.
The bill would also require anyone who sends unsolicited e-mail to give consumers a simple and guaranteed way to get off the mailing list.
That, too, may seem like good business sense. But not where spam is concerned.
"The last thing you want to do right now is hit 'reply' and ask them to remove your address," says Mozena. "All that does is alert that spammer that there's a live body on the other end of the address, one that actually reads their messages."
Ironically, that makes an e-mail address more valuable because a spammer can sell it to other spammers. Mozena got so frustrated by this lack of control over his private e-mail box that he helped found the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE), a grass-roots antispam lobbying group. It's been working directly with Congress on the bill, along with direct marketers, free-speech advocates, and Internet service providers like America Online and Prodigy.
The proposed legislation would most likely give providers the right to block spam coming into their system, unless individual e-mail users indicate they want to continuing receiving such unsolicited e-mails.
Paying for junk mail
"It's one thing to pay for things you want, it's another to pay for things you don't," says Joe Keeley of Murkowski's office. "The reason we got involved was that, for many of our constituents in Alaska, it's a long distant call to log on and download their e-mail."
Ray Everett-Church, a lawyer for CAUCE, likens spam to a telemarketing call to an individual's cell phone.
"The ultimate cost for receiving that transmission gets borne by you, the recipient, not the sender," he says.
It also costs individual network providers lots of time and money.
Tim Pierce runs the computer system for RootsWeb.com, a genealogical data cooperative on the Internet. It has more than 6,000 mailing lists of people interested in learning more about their families. If a spammer taps one of those lists electronically, it can wreak havoc with the computer system. "When someone starts a big spamming run, it can make the system work so hard it can reject regular mail," he says.
Like most Internet service providers, Mr. Pierce uses filters to keep the amount of spam to a minimum. But that too can be expensive and time-consuming. And it's not always as effective as Pierce would like. Many spammers are constantly changing their addresses. "Updating the filters is a constant arms race," says Pierce.
Cracking down on shady spamming
Even direct marketers - who thrive on catching you at home on the phone - are concerned about the kind of shady spamming that now dominates Internet e-mail. And while they oppose an outright ban as unconstitutional, they are amenable to most of the proposals now in Congress.
"We don't want to kill something at the outset, because it could well become a valued and profitable commercial medium," says Richard Barton of the Direct Marketing Association. "But that's as long as it's honest and forthright, and you can tell people that you don't want to receive it."