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The First Step Toward Getting E-Mail Back The Way It Used to Be

University of Oregon Computing Center

As a power user of e-mail I send and/or receive somewhere between 600 and 1,000 messages on a typical work day. In today’s guest column, J'e St Sauver’s call for our government to do something rings a bell for me. Yes, it may be a little complicated. The do-not-call list is off and on hold, for example, due to legitimate free speech issues. (As an employee of a 501(c)(3) organization, it would make life difficult for us if we were held to the same standards as commercial organizations, partly because complying means spending money we don’t have – from "profits" we don’t make – on the technology to comply. On the other hand, not holding us to those standards may well constitute an infringement of the commercial speakers’ free speech.) And, even if most spammers are inside the U.S., if they’re making enough money, they could just move away. On the other hand, maybe that cuts into the profit margin just enough. Anyway, an astute candidate for the 2004 presidential election would be paying a lot of attention. I know that if one of the democratic candidates could point to something they had done that had effectively reduced spam, they’d likely have my vote. Heck, if even one admitted they read their own mail and understand the problem, I’d probably even bring out my checkbook!

—Terry Calhoun, IT Trends Commentator, Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), University of Michigan.


The FTC and Congress appear to have finally grasped the fact that Americans are sick and tired of telemarketing calls, and despite the DMA's desperate legal wranglings and spastically comic efforts to delay or block the Do-Not-Call Bill, the Beltway bureaucracy appears to have finally gotten the message that Americans have *had it* and are just completely fed up with unsolicited telephone sales calls. Good! It's about time!

So why hasn't the FTC and Congress done anything about spam?

I suspect there are a number of factors at work:

1. Congressmen and Senators tend not to be "e-mail people."
If you're a Congressman or Senator, you're an important person and you deal with other important people the same way Congressmen or Senators have always dealt with other important people: face to face, or maybe over the phone.

Consider yourself fortunate if your Congressman or Senator even knows how to send an e-mail himself, because, believe it or not, many of them don't. Heck, most of them don't even have real public e-mail addresses, try sending an e-mail and see what happens. Most likely it will get read (or your subject line will be) by some intern or volunteer for reading, tallying, and offering a boilerplate response!

If you don't use e-mail, and most Congressmen and Senators don't, you might be able to be excused for not knowing how bad things have become.

So do me a favor. If you're the friend of a Congressman or Senator, the next time you're at the country club walking between holes on the golf course, give your friend an ‘attaboy’ for supporting the do-not-call list (since they virtually all did), and then ask "So what about spam?"

Tell your friend how sick Americans are of spam, and maybe even gently work into the conversation that there seems to be a public sense of growing impatience among Americans, and oh my, on a completely different subject, wasn't that recall of Governor Davis in California something? Gee, must be sort of unsettling to see that sort of thing, huh? Voters can be so impatient, can't they?

Did I mention how big a problem spam has become, and how sick Americans have become waiting for federal action on spam?

2. Congressmen and senators, in addition to not being e-mail people, sometimes have a hard time keeping things simple.

Short bills aren't taken as seriously as long bills. Unless we have extensive hearings, we don't have enough information to act. Let me ask the Congressional Research Service for a study. Need a fiscal impact study on that one. Etc., etc., etc.

Congressmen and senators need to fight that urge when it comes to spam and just do something very simple: expand the junk FAX law already on the books (47 U.S.C. 227) to also cover e-mail.

That's it. Period. Finito. End of story. No need for complicated gyrations, no need for new bureaucracies or higher taxes.

Just extend the no-junk-FAX law to also cover e-mail, declare victory, and suddenly lots of people will want to make sure you stay in office as their friend and obviously brilliant representative in Washington DC.
If the federal government d'esn't act, states will. Even Oregon has passed an anti-spam bill this past term, SB910 ( providing for $500-per-spam penalties for selected types of spam. If little old backwoods Oregon can pass an anti-spam law, surely the mighty federal government can spit one out, too!

3. There is one more component to all this that people need to understand. Virtually all the spam you're receiving is being sent by only a couple hundred spammers, and they're virtually all Americans. We even know who they are and what ISPs are connecting them.

This spam cartel has lived and operated from the U.S. with virtual impunity for far too long. If the federal government wanted to, they could go after these spammers and their ISPs and you'd see your spam rate plummet.

Heck, Spamhaus even will get them started in the right direction; see their Roster of Known Spam Operatives at

Why not encourage the government to think about doing so? Maybe they'll listen if enough of us ask, even if we don't play golf at the country club with the Congressman.

Remember: e-mail can start going back to the way it used to be, if you help Congress and the federal bureaucracy "kick start their engines" a little. The no-call list and the no-junk-fax list laws are steps in the right direction, but the time has come to deal with e-mail spam, and with e-mail spammers.
So, don’t let’s just feel helpless about this. Sure, the technology tools that we’re all working on or implementing feel more like something we can do, but I agree with J'e completely. Few federal-level legislators really understand what it’s like to get and send e-mail first-hand, and none are likely to be in a position where their staff lets them be "bothered" by sorting through hundreds of spam messages.

So, here’s a link to a page of the League for Women Voters where you can search by zip code for your legislators’ "official" e-mail addresses: Why not take a few moments to send a few messages – just be sure to make it clear in the subject like what you’re sending about, so that intern can tally the mail properly. I suggest: "Do Something to Stop the Spammers."

If you really want to try something different, how about putting up postage and sending a brief handwritten note in a hand-addressed envelope. From what I hear, that – besides a check – is the kind of "incoming" that gets the most attention inside the Beltway.

J'e St Sauver, Ph.D. (j'[email protected]) is director of user services and network applications at the University of Oregon Computing Center.

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