TheGlobe.com hosts spam debate

Members of the online community are treated to an interactive conference on issues surrounding the dissemination of spam.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
Online community TheGlobe.com used the Net as a platform for debate at its interactive conference on issues surrounding unsolicited commercial email.

Last night's conference featured five experts who presented their opinions about and definitions of spam before answering questions posed by the community's members participating in the chat.

Though panelists generally agreed on the definition of spam as email sent in bulk to recipients who did not ask for it, they also expressed various ideas on controversial issues regarding free speech, antispam legislation, and the threats that bulk email pose to its recipients.

"The difference between door-to-door salesmen and spammers is that door-to-door marketing does not cost the recipient," former "Spam King" Sanford Wallace said.

One reader asked the panel whether it would be illegal to send bulk email if it was not advertising pornography. While one panelist suggested only sending email to interested parties, David Sorkin, assistant professor specializing in technology and privacy law at John Marshall Law School, pointed out the reason for bulk emailing in the first place.

"Simple: it's easier and no more costly to send them to everyone," Sorkin said. "That's part of the problem with spam, and why it's different from other forms of direct marketing."

Spam is an ongoing issue that causes much anger among Net users. An estimated 120 million people use email, according to Net monitoring firm Matrix Information and Directory Services. Spammers have been taken to court by ISPs and have riled up animosity among many Netizens.

The conference comes at a point when the federal government as well as some states have taken action to curb spam from flooding email boxes. Today there are a number of antispam bills before Congress, but none have passed.

The Globe audience also posed questions relating to nonmarketing uses of spam. One audience member brought up chain letters and asked what people could do to prevent receiving sometimes threatening email. Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA, said the issue of spam as a commercial product should be distinguished from email that threatens its recipients.

"This isn't a question of spam, it's a question of threats," Volokh said. "It's illegal to communicate threats; we don't need new laws to stop that."

Nonetheless, panelists in the conference had their own viewpoints on potential solutions to the problem.

"It seems to me that the law should, if anything, target only bulk unsolicited mail," Volkh added. "The question is whether there should be a flat ban or an opt-out provision, in which each individual recipient will decide whether or not he wants to get such unsolicited bulk email."

However, Ray Everett-Church, cofounder and counsel of antispam advocacy group the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, warned, "There are many who fear that prohibitions on political or religious bulk email would be unconstitutional," he said. "I happen to believe that a reasonable restriction on the manner of such speech may be constitutional, but that's a different discussion..."

Other panel members included David Rand, chief technology officer of Internet connectivity firm Above.net, and Steve Krein, president of online promotions firm WebStakes.