DECEMBER 9, 2003

By Christopher Kenton

How to Really Do a Job on Spam

Hiring "personal e-mail assistants" to sift the daily deluge will create jobs and unclutter in-boxes. Silly? You bet, but no worse than politicians' "remedies"

I get a lot of spam. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, more than 2,400 ads for pharmaceuticals, mortgage loans, and -- ahem -- "personal products" made their way onto my network. About 1,000 of them slipped through the filters and into my in-box. Not a very good ratio, but I'm not too surprised. I'm abundantly blessed with spam because I include my e-mail address with every article I write, which makes me a frequent target of the "harvesting" programs advertisers use to collect the names of their victims. I could eliminate my e-mail address from the articles, but how else would I receive all the angry messages that come when I argue against the rising tide of misdirected antispam laws? (See BW Online, 11/3/03, "A Spam Law That Slams Small Business")

One reader, incredulous that I would oppose California's antispam law, simply assumed I must have a personal assistant who screens my e-mail and protects me from spam. I scoffed at the suggestion, but then I saw its brilliance. Personal e-mail assistants (PEA): the answer to a sluggish service economy. Instead of constantly tuning ineffective filters, instead of manually deleting hundreds of e-mails a day, I could just come to work in the morning and breezily call out to my PEA, "Hold the porn and tell the mortgage brokers I'm out to lunch. But if CHEAP V!@GRA shows up, send him through."

STUPID POLS' TRICKS. This new job category would provide a much needed stabilizing effect on our economy. We all know that, when recession strikes, more people are out of work, consumer confidence drops, and companies have to market more aggressively through cheaper channels to make their margins. But if we put people back to work as an army of intelligent filters against the aggressive tide of marketing messages, voila! The twin forces of nature -- aggressive marketing and marketing backlash -- cancel each other out.

And to think I was laboriously arguing against the California law because it was vague, unenforceable, and stacked against small business. That's precisely what we want! It allows politicians to mollify popular outrage against spam, while pandering to big contributors with loopholes and exceptions, which leaves plenty of table scraps for small business who would innovate the PEA industry.

Since I'm so slow on the uptake, I guess it's a good thing I'm not a politician. Otherwise I might have stood blindly in the way of the federal Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography & Marketing act (CAN SPAM), which blazed through Congress last month, shortly after passage of the Invention of Needless Acronyms for Naming Enactments act (INANE). It's painfully apparent more time was spent devising the catchy acronym than defining slippery terms like "unsolicited e-mail" and "preexisting business relationship. In the end, we'll have a great new law that sounds serious but doesn't stop spam.

One great thing about CAN SPAM is that it will immediately supersede all state antispam laws, kind of like one-stop shopping for ineffective legislation. Another bonus is that it takes a step back from the California law (or is that a step forward?), by diluting the definition of spam. Under the new federal law, it's only spam if an advertiser continues to send you e-mail after you request that it stops. Now, instead of just deleting e-mails, you'll have to respond to them in order to get them to stop. More work for your loyal personal e-mail assistant.

ASSININE ASSUMPTIONS. The underlying weakness of all these laws, which is so obvious that I can only assume our legislators are willfully ignoring it, is that they assume a technological standard for e-mail that not only doesn't exist, but that no one wants to be responsible for creating. These laws assume that spammers can be identified -- an assumption spammers are proving wrong, and doing so with ever-greater audacity, because the technology is easily skirted. They also assume a legal standard that doesn't exist -- that spammers who are somehow caught will fall under federal jurisdiction, which is possible I guess, after we annex Poland, China, and a laundry list of other growing electronic refuges.

By quickly churning out showy but ineffective laws, we're able to neatly avoid the painful and costly process of creating effective ones -- laws that would encourage not just regulation, but the creation of new e-mail standards making it harder for spammers to hide. Since big political contributors don't want the cost and burden of creating new standards, and most voters seem content to believe the catchy names of any legislation that moves through Congress, I guess the best course of action is to join the parade like a true entrepreneur. Expect to receive an e-mail with the following header sometime soon: From: ckenton@cymbic.com To: Undisclosed Recipient Subject: CHEAP P.e.r.s.o.n.a.l E.m.a.i.l A.s.s.i.s.t.a.n.t.