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Hail to the...spammer-in-chief?

CNET News.com's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh finds that Democratic presidential wanna-be Joseph Lieberman thinks it's fine to clog our in-boxes--as long as he's the one doing it.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
WASHINGTON--Sen. Joseph Lieberman hopes to become the first Democratic president from Connecticut, the first Jewish president, and the first senator to win the White House since John F. Kennedy.

Good for him. Our problem is that Lieberman also is itching to be our spammer-in-chief.

It's no joke. Within hours of announcing his plans to seek the Democratic nomination for the job last week, Lieberman started spamming around a message titled: "Beginning an Amazing Journey." It said: "I have the strength, vision, and values to lead our nation to higher ground."

To broadcast this momentous news, Lieberman used an outfit called Roving Software of Waltham, Mass., which sells a bulk-mail service called ConstantContact. Bulk mailers pay from $10 to about $2,000 a month for the service. Roving claims to occupy a market niche reminiscent of the dot-com boom, describing itself as a "pre-IPO, venture-backed" start-up boasting revenue growth of "more than 40 percent per quarter in 2002."

There's a lot of bulk e-mail, which Roving says is not spam but "permission-based marketing." Roving does require ConstantContact users to let e-mail recipients "remove themselves from your mailing list," but its terms of service agreement does not require that addresses on the list be confirmed "opt-in" in the first place. In other words: Roving may heed to your removal request, but its customers don't need your permission to clog your in-box in the first place.

Roving CEO Gail Goodman told me she'd look into the Lieberman campaign's e-mail practices, and suggested that its unsolicited e-mail might be a "gray area." Goodman said: "It is likely that it is one of the gray areas and inadvertent. We will make sure that the Lieberman campaign is following good list standards."

John Gilmore, an entrepreneur in San Francisco who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, got hit by Lieberman's bulk mail sent through Roving's ConstantContact. "For the record, I have never sent any money to Joe Lieberman, nor supported either the Republicrat or the Demmican parties," Gilmore said. "This is spam, not good old Joe getting back to me about my burning concern that he's not president yet."

Worse yet is that Lieberman has tried to position himself as an antispam politician.

For its part, the Lieberman for President campaign said on Friday that it bought the list from the senator's now-defunct political action committee. ROCPAC, which started in March 2001, assembled the list from "various sources," according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Adam Kovacevich, a Lieberman campaign spokesman, said: "It is absolutely clear who sent this e-mail, and we specifically provided recipients with an unsubscribe option. This is not spam." Only one message has been sent to the list so far and it will continue to be used, the campaign said. (At least ConstantContact's "unsubscribe" feature does seem to work as advertised.)

Ironically, Lieberman has tried to position himself as an antispam politician. "Spam is a tremendous nuisance," Lieberman proclaimed when announcing his support for the "Can-Spam" legislation in May 2000. "It is not requested by the receiver. It almost never contains any information of substance or value...It is costly, destructive, and an invasion of our privacy."

He got that right. But now, hypocritically, Lieberman thinks it's fine to invade our privacy--as long if he's the one doing it.

Besides, a close read of that Can-Spam legislation reveals an important loophole: It applies only to "commercial electronic mail messages."

Even back when the bill was first introduced nearly three years ago, Lieberman and the other sponsors cunningly exempted themselves--and all other politicians--from its requirements.

How delightfully Machiavellian! That's called keeping your options open.

Political spammers
While Lieberman is the first presidential wanna-be I know to have resorted to unsolicited e-mail, plenty of other politicians at the state level have become recidivist spammers. The Democratic Party has been caught spamming, as has Bill Jones, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of California. So has the U.K. Ministry of Defense, which spammed about 100,000 addresses this month after--you guessed it--buying a list from someone.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush spammed 800 supporters of his Democratic rival, and a Republican senate candidate spammed voters in Connecticut, then defended his practices as perfectly reasonable. I've seen spam from a Washington, D.C., city council candidate that was funneled through a server in China, and a New Yorker forwarded spam sent by a city council candidate in Newport Beach, Calif. A Delaware Democrat running for Congress used the same tricks to compile his bulk e-mail lists as do the porn and get-rich-quick spammers.

While Lieberman is the first presidential wanna-be I know to have resorted to unsolicited e-mail, plenty of other politicians at the state level have become recidivist spammers.

Because we're talking about speech protected by the First Amendment, it's true that these unrepentant pols may have some right to continue flooding our in-boxes. (Though I can imagine some laws regulating candidates' spam that would pass constitutional muster.) At the same time, we have the right to block them by whatever means necessary.

The problem is that laws against spam will be woefully insufficient. Politicians have a bad habit of exempting anyone who can hire a sufficiently expensive lobbyist, and overseas spammers will gleefully ignore what the U.S. Congress has to say. That means we need to trust in technology instead.

I used to think that blacklists like SpamCop were useful, but after learning that SpamCop has intentionally blocked competitors like Despammed.com and Spamex.com, I'd recommend other solutions. Last Friday's spam summit in Cambridge, Mass., which News.com wrote about, featured intriguing ways to use Bayesian statistics to craft individualized antispam filters. If spam grows sufficiently noxious, there are always white lists and "is-the-sender-a-human" tests as a last resort.

Meanwhile the Lieberman episode should prompt us to ask ourselves a simple question. What do you trust more to keep your in-boxes spam-free: Rapidly advancing technology or promises from politicians of dubious sincerity?