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The line between permission-based or "opt-in" e-mail marketing and spam is getting thinner by day. Some list resellers guarantee consensual nature of their wares. According to Direct Marketing Association's guidelines, quoted by PC World, not responding to an unsolicited e-mail amounts to "opting-in" - a marketing strategy known as "opting out". Most experts, though, strongly urge spam victims not to respond to spammers, lest their e-mail address is confirmed.
But spam is crossing technological boundaries. Japan has just legislated against wireless SMS spam targeted at hapless mobile phone users. Four states in USA as well as European parliament are following suit. Expensive and slow connections make this kind of spam particularly resented. Still, according to Britain's Mobile Channel, a mobile advertising company quoted by "The Economist", SMS advertising - a novelty - attracts a 10-20 percent response rate - compared to direct mail's 1-3 percent.
Net identification systems - like Microsoft's Passport and one proposed by Liberty Alliance - will make it even easier for marketers to target prospects.
The reaction to spam can be described only as mass hysteria. Reporting someone as a spammer - even when he is not - has become a favorite pastime of vengeful, self-appointed, vigilante "cyber-cops". Perfectly legitimate, opt-in, email marketing businesses often find themselves in one or more black lists - their reputation and business ruined.
In January, CMGI-owned Yesmail was awarded a temporary restraining order against MAPS - Mail Abuse Prevention System - forbidding it to place reputable e-mail marketer on its Real-time Blackhole list. The case was settled out of court.
Harris Interactive, a large online opinion polling company, sued not only MAPS, but ISP's who blocked its email messages when it found itself included in MAPS' Blackhole. Their CEO accused one of their competitors for allegations that led to Harris' inclusion in list.
Coupled with other pernicious phenomena, such as viruses, very foundation of Internet as a fun, relatively safe, mode of communication and data acquisition is at stake.
Spammers, it emerges, have their own organizations. NOIC - National Organization of Internet Commerce threatened to post to its Web site e-mail addresses of millions of AOL members. AOL has aggressive anti-spamming policies. "AOL is blocking bulk email because it wants advertising revenues for itself (by selling pop-up ads)" president of NOIC, Damien Melle, complained to CNET.
Spam is a classic "free rider" problem. For any given individual, cost of blocking a spammer far outweighs benefits. It is cheaper and easier to hit "delete" key. Individuals, therefore, prefer to let others do job and enjoy outcome - public good of a spam-free Internet. They cannot be left out of benefits of such an aftermath - public goods are, by definition, "non-excludable". Nor is a public good diminished by a growing number of "non-rival" users.
Such a situation resembles a market failure and requires government intervention through legislation and enforcement. The FTC - US Federal Trade Commission - has taken legal action against more than 100 spammers for promoting scams and fraudulent goods and services.
"Project Mailbox" is an anti-spam collaboration between American law enforcement agencies and private sector. Non government organizations have entered fray, as have lobbying groups, such as CAUCE - Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.
But Congress is curiously reluctant to enact stringent laws against spam. Reasons cited are free speech, limits on state powers to regulate commerce, avoiding unfair restrictions on trade, and interests of small business. The courts equivocate as well. In some cases - e.g., Missouri vs. American Blast Fax - US courts found "that provision prohibiting sending of unsolicited advertisements is unconstitutional".
According to Spamlaws.com, 107th Congress discussed these laws but never enacted them:
Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2001 (H.R. 95), Wireless Telephone Spam Protection Act (H.R. 113), Anti-Spamming Act of 2001 (H.R. 718), Anti-Spamming Act of 2001 (H.R. 1017), Who Is E-Mailing Our Kids Act (H.R. 1846), Protect Children From E-Mail Smut Act of 2001 (H.R. 2472), Netizens Protection Act of 2001 (H.R. 3146), "CAN SPAM" Act of 2001 (S. 630).
Anti-spam laws fared no better in 106th Congress. Some of states have picked up slack. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The situation is no better across pond. The European parliament decided last year to allow each member country to enact its own spam laws, thus avoiding a continent-wide directive and directly confronting communications ministers of union. Paradoxically, it also decided, three months ago, to restrict SMS spam. Confusion clearly reigns. Finally, last month, it adopted strong anti-spam provisions as part of a Directive on Data Protection.
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.