Slicing the Spam

Unwanted commercial e-mails are about as easy to prune as kudzu. They just keep coming. By some estimate, their volume has increased as much as 10-fold over the past year, accounting for 15 to 30 percent of all e-mail traffic handled by Internet service providers.

Efforts to thin this unwanted traffic - known as "spam" - through laws are still in their early stages. In the US, such laws confront the constitutional argument that they interfere with interstate commerce.

But judicial thinking may be swinging against that argument. On Jan. 4, a state appeals court in California reversed a lower-court ruling that had struck down an anti-spam law because of its supposed negative impact on commerce. The appellate panel emphasized the state's "legitimate interest in protecting its citizens from the harmful effects of deceptive, unsolicited commercial e-mail."

California law simply requires that purveyors of Internet spam label their messages as advertisements, so recipients are duly warned.

Also encouraging, the US Supreme Court in October refused to hear a case challenging Washington State's anti-spam law. That law imposes fines on deceptive commercial e-mails. The state's prosecutors in the case argued that holding the e-mailers to a higher ethical standard would enhance interstate commerce, not burden it.

Such rulings and new state laws should nudge Congress to act.

Laws alone won't eliminate spam, which has overseas as well as US origins. But they can help ensure e-mail is a useful, not a burdensome, tool.

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