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Free speech or campaign spam?

California gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones is back online after his ISP shut down his Web site in protest over a mass e-mail.

California gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones is back online after his Web-hosting service shut down his campaign Internet site in protest over a mass e-mail that some outraged recipients compared to spam.

The campaign to elect Jones, California's secretary of state, involved sending hundreds of thousands of unsolicited e-mails to in- and out-of-state residents last week through a third-party marketer, resulting in a forced closure of the Web site by its Internet service provider on Friday morning. The site was down until Saturday, when Jones' committee hired an alternate company to restore its Internet connection just days before the state's Republican primary on Tuesday.

"We hired a vendor to e-mail Californians who had expressed an interest in politics," said Darrel Ng, deputy press secretary for Bill Jones. "For the people who received it outside of California we do apologize for it--of course this is not our intent because they can't vote in our election anyways."

The incident proved to be a huge faux pas for a politician in one of the only states with an anti-spam law. Though not illegal, the episode will likely set a precedent of what not to do in future elections. It also reveals the Web as a double-edged sword for Internet marketing.

In past campaigns, the Net has proved to be a valuable forum for building awareness and gathering support for candidates. But it has also been used as a sabotage vehicle. During the 2000 presidential election, mass e-mail seemingly from the Republican National Committee was sent to many Democrats in an attempt to discredit the campaign.

Legal experts say the e-mail did not violate California's anti-spam law because political e-mail does not fall under the "commercial" distinction given to spam.

"In fact, the sending of unsolicited commercial ideology might be protected by the First Amendment because it's information about ideas," said Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA's School of Law. "For example, people have the right to knock on doors to deliver leaflets about religion. Even though it's annoying, people likely do have a constitutional right to send out ideological spam, and it may be the case that all the government can do is set up an opt-out feature."

Still, experts say that most political Net marketing is tame in comparison to the Bill Jones flap.

"It's common for political groups to use the Internet to build grassroots support, but they don't usually go quite as far as Bill Jones went. They were sending spam to people in Pennsylvania. They obviously weren't paying attention," said Sonia Arrison, director for the Center of Technology Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

"It may not be illegal, but it's sure not good for his campaign," Arrison added. "The Netiquette around political marketing online will slowly form."

Overseas spam
The red flag surrounding the "Bill Jones for governor" bulk e-mail arose because it was allegedly sent through offshore servers, which are notoriously less secure than those in the United States. Spam experts say that at least 70 percent of the junk mail sent to U.S. residents originates from U.S. companies that are running e-mail through overseas servers.

The Bill Jones campaign contracted ASP (application service provider) Virtual Sprockets to host its Web site through its ISP, Atlantech Online. According to Virtual Sprockets' Web site, Altantech shut the Web site once it learned that the campaign's marketing sent the e-mail through Korean-based open relay servers--a step known as "blackholing" among anti-spammers.

Gartner analyst Joyce Graff says the crux of the matter is that it's hard to tell the "good guys" from the "bad guys." Often, their messages look deceptively similar.

see commentary

"We understand that recent Bill Jones e-mails violate the rule of Netiquette," read a message posted on the site. "The Jones campaign used a third-party company to send a mass spam e-mail through an unintentionally open relay server in an elementary school in Korea."

Ng denied that the campaign's third-party vendor used an open relay in Korea. He said Jones' campaign was informed that Atlantech blackholed them because "it was their opinion we were sending out spam and advertising on the Web site, which we weren't doing because it didn't include links back to our Web site."

"I wouldn't call it spam," Ng said. "The best definition of spam that I've heard is unsolicited commercial e-mail, and that's not what we did."

The company has since hired CCI Industries to host its Web site, with Epoch providing Internet connectivity, according to the Whois database.

Strevenue, the third-party marketer hired by the Bill Jones campaign, said it "harvested" addresses for the bulk-mail campaign but did not actually send the list out. A separate, "widespread e-mail sent in February was delivered through a private vendor located in San Diego," according to its Web site, adding that it "targeted a harvested list of registered Republican e-mails."

How does Strevenue account for voters in other U.S. states receiving the e-mail?

"It was definitely an oversight," said Sinan Kanatsiz, co-founder of Strevenue. "But when you're harvesting e-mail you'll always have one or two that aren't valid."