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Can Anyone Put a Lid on Porno Spam?


A couple of weeks ago, I asked readers for suggestions on dealing with a rising tide of junk e-mail, particularly pornography. You weren't shy, and your responses convinced me that there is tremendous anger over the situation. But despite receiving a number of interesting ideas, I am gloomier than ever about the prospects for relief.

"This awful stuff continues to come in every day," says Jerry Gropp of Mercer Island, Wash., reflecting the views of a large number of readers. "Seeing what sick minds can do to misuse the marvelous thing that is e-mail is discouraging."

Some people find such mail embarrassing and frightening. They are angry that neither Internet service providers nor government seems willing or able to do anything. Larry Bieber, of Oakland, Calif., received smutty mail in his Hotmail account that seemed to come from his own Mindspring account. "I was furious my name was hijacked and wrote Mindspring and Hotmail and didn't receive replies from either of them," he wrote. "It would have been very embarrassing to have this sent to my pastor and friends. If this had been sent to company executives, I could have lost my job because they have a zero-porn policy." Others fear for their children. "You can't let a child on [the computer] to send e-mail to grandparents without checking for this type of trash first," wrote Doris Bertch of Poway, Calif.

Many readers noted that they never receive pornographic postal mail or telephone solicitations and surmised the law is the reason. Indeed, sending "obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile" material through the mail, solicited or not, can get you 10 years in prison. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service enforces the law. Similar laws cover telephone solicitations.

A 1996 statute prohibits the transmission of such material over an "interactive computer network," but it is not clear whether it applies to e-mail. In any event, I can find no indication of any prosecutions brought under it. Last year, lobbyists for the direct-mail industry killed legislation that would have restricted junk e-mail. Nineteen states have attempted to restrict such spam, generally prohibiting the use of fake return addresses or requiring that recipients be given a working method to block future mail. But the laws are generally ineffective because states may not regulate interstate commerce. In one small success, I did hear from Bennett Haselton of Seattle, who has won, but not yet collected, four $500 judgments under a Washington state law.

Several writers suggested attacking the economics of junk mail. No direct mailer or telemarketer could afford to be as profligate as a spammer in sending out unsolicited messages. "Junk e-mail only gets sent because there is no real cost to the originator," wrote computer scientist Martin Campbell-Kelly of the University of

Warwick in Coventry, England. "Hence, a solution might be for ISPs to charge, say, 1 cents per e-mail, which would be credited to one's monthly bill. Any normal user would get a few hundred e-mails per month free, but a spammer would be deterred from sending millions of e-mails." The fees would have to be universal or spammers would simply use free ISPs.

There are plenty of people of good will out there who want to attack the problem, but the silence from the industry, particularly the ISPs who would have to make any solution work, is deeply discouraging. Individual ISPs have acted, but, uncoordinated, accomplish little. "I represent an ISP that is doing some of the things you advocate," says Rom Mattesich, chief technical officer of GlobalXchange Communications in Miami. "I can assure that we and the industry we relate to have cooperated in pursuing and eliminating known obnoxious spammers, but the effort is akin to sticking your finger in a leaky dam and hoping it will hold against an onrushing flood. This problem has many aspects. To stem the tide requires a coordinated legal, political, economic, and technical assault of multinational proportions. Call it a jihad on smut."

I'm ready to join. But I'm still looking for someone in the industry to take the lead. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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