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Political email sparks spam debate

A political consultant calls his mass election-oriented email campaign a "public service," while to others it is just more spam.

San Francisco political consultant Robert Barnes calls the mass emailing he sent out to Netizens a "public service."

Others have a different word for it: spam.

Barnes, who runs a slate card called Informed Voter, sends out slate cards via the United States Postal Service, endorsing candidates and issues.

Sending out the same slates via email "seemed too logical to me," he said. "It just seemed so logical to move forward."

So Barnes, with Andy Wong, who helped with the technical side of things, sent out what he hoped would be a fairly targeted emailing to get out the Netizen vote.

During the presidential election, Bob Dole sent out personalized email, but Netizens had to go to the site to sign up for it--or someone else had to sign up in their name. If there are other politicians and advocates using unsolicited email to get across political messages, they are doing so fairly quietly.

While others sure have been tempted, many have probably resisted, knowing the intense antispam climate pervading the Net these days.

Barnes and Wong decided it was worth the risk.

"It's kind of an experiment," Wong said. "It's kind of a test case to see if it goes over. We kind of see ourselves slightly different than spamming. We're not selling anything."

Wong said they took email names mostly from newsgroups likely to be populated by San Franciscans. But he realized it was a hit-or-miss proposition.

In fact, at least one recipient complained in a newsgroup that "the idiots spammed me, 500 miles to the north of San Francisco. How many people did they spam in Khazakstan?"

Email sent back to Wong and Barnes was split about 50/50, they said, with half thanking them for informing them about the issues and including information about polling places and the other sharing a few choice words about spam.

In the same newsgroup, another Netizen complained about the emailing and suggested that it might constitute a campaigning violation since technically the end user, not the spammer, pays for the email.

"I paid for this message against my will, as did everyone else who received it," he said. "This seems to me to be a matter of illegal campaigning, since each of us who received this junk email have been coerced into making an unreported contribution."

These are the kind of issues that have not been addressed yet because spamming has only recently become a major political issue.

Barnes sees it as a question of free speech. "I'm a First Amendment person," he said. "I very much believe in the free flow of information. I especially believe in the free flow of information as it relates to democracy and electoral politics.

"It's a very positive thing to start creating a climate as this technology becomes more user-friendly for a wider majority of people," he added. "We're doing people a service."

And if it works, who knows? Next time around people all over the state might be getting voter cards.

"We're looking at frankly going statewide next year," Barnes said. "In the June primaries we're considering sending our mailing out to several million people in the state of California."