Death To Spam

When the government does something right, it should get some credit. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer finds a winner and wants more, of course.

I just had what may be the most pleasant encounter I've ever had with a federal regulatory agency.

It was something I have been looking forward to for weeks. It lasted just a minute or so. And now I am almost giddy with citizen satisfaction.

Give up?

I just visited donotcall.gov and vanquished telemarketers from my home forever with a few quick clicks. I feel empowered. My self-esteem is skyrocketing. All thanks to America's vast, faceless bureaucracy.

Some 23 million marketing-maimed phone owners flocked to the National Do Not Call Registry just in the first week it was operating. I'd say that's a pretty good indication that this is a government program folks want. My only complaint is that they should have started it years ago. It's ludicrous that we allowed ourselves to be subjected to tele-harassment for so long.

It is not in my nature or my job description to write feel-good stories about things that happen in Washington. I do so now for two reasons. The first I offer at the risk of being corny. When the government does something right, it should be recognized; when it does something wrong, there is never hesitancy to blame. The odd kudo is especially helpful when the reigning CEO of the federal government is basically anti-government.

My second reason is more typically demanding and whiny. Why is there not a donotspammeeveragainyouidiot.gov? It's an outrage! Can't the government do anything right?

But seriously folks: Unwanted e-mail may not be as physically intrusive as unwanted phone calls, but spam is more offensive. Also, kids get it. According to Brightmail, a leading company in the spam-blocking field, 19 percent of all spam is pornographic.) Do you honestly believe Americans would tolerate obscene calls from marketers every night at dinner? I don't think so.

I won't waste your time documenting the massive chunks of greasy spam that clog today's inboxes. You know it. I just did a mini-test. In the past 30 minutes, I got 11 spams. They were uniquely tame: get Viagra online, credit card deals, work at home offers and one cure for spam. Right. When I check my inbox in the morning, I'll have dozens of missives from Nigerian dignitaries offering to make me a rich man, scores of recipes for enormous genitals and e-porn ads galore. Perhaps there is spam that is useful to people. I haven't seen it.

Great minds are at work trying to can spam. The most common at this point is filtering. Consumers, corporate systems and Internet service providers will increasingly use programs that filter or block unsolicited commercial e-mails. This is becoming a big business and I wish it all the best.

Another approach is called "whitelists." These systems allow in only e-mail from pre-approved, already known senders – everyone in your address book, for example. But if a long-last friend got your address and sent you and e-mail, it would be blocked. Ways around that problem will be mastered, but some fear that some of the wonderful openness of e-mail and the Web may at risk.

Big brains are working on ways to combine these two approaches into programs that are essentially personalized filters. If you always delete without reading e-mails about online drugs, the program will recognize that and filter out or flag them in the future. If you always open e-mails about credit cards, they will be treated as regular and welcome e-mails.

Another tack is essentially a market approach. E-mail is practically free to send. If it weren't, spammers couldn't afford to send billions of unwanted, unanswered e-mails out every day. Solution: attach a cost to e-mails. We pay for letters. We pay for phone calls. Direct mail companies pay for postage. Why should e-mail be free? This, of course, is a hugely controversial idea in the we-are-entitled-to-it-for-free Internet world.

Finally, there are the folks that brought us www.donotcall. Government based solutions bouncing around Congress involve some kind of a national opt-out registry and criminal prosecution of violators. This entails defining what exactly spam is and what illegal spam is.

I am agnostic about what the righteous path is. My friend the Internet visionary and mogul says that's irresponsible and demagogic of me. He says responding to the problem of porno mail and nuisance spam is fairly trivial but that really huge, profound issues about the future flow of intellectual property, information, news, commerce and personal communication are at stake.

I accept his criticism. But my aim is more humble and my brain is simple. I think spam – the silly Nigerian scams, the penis enlarging creams – is more than a nuisance. It's a daily assault on privacy and a social coarseness that shouldn't be tolerated. I hope that technical solutions are found very quickly. I hope that market resolutions emerge. I have no special faith in technology, markets or government regulation. Maybe that's too gloomy. But I certainly do think it is reasonable to demand some protection from the government.

And fresh from my visit to www.donotcall, I am heartened.

Now I just hope the calls really stop.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer
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