State of the vermin

The other day I happened to encounter this fine fellow, who is doing something that I briefly dabbled in — fighting spam. In fact, he’s been wading in virtual sewers, dealing with the dreck and offal that would put the Palestinians’ “turdnami” to shame, for seven years, studying, analyzing, and creating a taxonomy of spam — and lemme tell ya, it’s downright ugly.

During the course of our conversation, we noted three things:

1) The infamous “CAN-SPAM Act” of 2003, in which the utterly immoral, downright indefensible practice of “opt-out” was enshrined into law, had a tremendous affect on the spam problem — it sent it skyrocketing through the roof.

2) The drop-off in “stealing cable” spams was quite probably linked to the rise in popularity of digital cable and satellite TV service, both considerably more difficult to steal.

3) Spammers are are scumbags.

Just to clarify point #1, “opt-out” is the electronic version of “negative option” marketing — “congratulations, you’re on our list! We’re going to keep sending you our crap until you beg and plead and jump through these hoops to get off it.” To me, it’s a violation of a fundamental principle — no one should have to actively seek to be left alone. That should be the default.

Unfortunately, our Congress, in its infinite wisdom (and infinite pocket-space for “campaign contributions”), decided that every spammer should be entitled to one free spam, and can continue spamming you until you follow THEIR rules and get off THEIR list, that you never asked to be one.

That’s every spammer. Potentially, that’s every single company in the United States — and the last count I heard listed that number was in excess of 22,000 different companies. Assuming that they take turns sending the spam, and only spam once inside the 10-day window they have to process opt-out requests, that means that you can receive 60 spams a day, every day, all year.

And don’t even think of hoping that your state might decide to protect you better than Congress. Another part of the law specifically prevents that. Should the CAN-SPAM act conflict with any state law, the federal law takes precedence and trumps state laws.

My favorite analogy: “Congratulations! You’re now a member of the ‘Punch In The Nose’ club! Once a day, a very large man named Guido will come by and punch you in the nose. If you don’t wish to continue your membership, click here and enter your e-mail address on the form that comes up. Please allow up to 10 days for your request to be processed — and during that time Guido will continue to share with you the benefits of your membership. And your request will be good for 30 days only, at which time we may choose to renew your membership and start this whole thing over again.”

And what is so wrong with spam? It’s because it is “free” to the sender. It’s just as cheap to send a single e-mail as it is to send a zillion. The real cost of the spam is paid by the companies that carry the e-mail — and sooner or later, they’re going to look at the cost-benefit ratio and simply stop carrying the traffic entirely.

The cost is shared by the recipients, who pay for their computers, their internet connections, their e-mail, and have to watch the spammers use those resources without their consent — and they can’t do a goddamned thing about it, thanks to Congress and that “CAN-SPAM” act.

This whole situation has confirmed a few beliefs of mine:

If you want to find the absolute worst, most inefficient, most cumbersome, most easily perverted solution to a problem, have the federal government do it. There are times when this is the only solution, but as a general rule it’s a bad idea.

Any time Congress passes a law with a tortuous acronym such as CAN-SPAM (“Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003”) or the USA PATRIOT Act (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”), the ensuing legislation is pretty much guaranteed to be a dog’s breakfast of untested ideas, loopholes, earmarks, sneaky exceptions for favored individuals and groups, and in general cause more problems than it cures.

In this case, according to e-mail giant Postini, we have reached the point where 90% of all e-mails are spam. The signal-to-noise ratio in e-mail is decreasing to the point where it very well might destroy the utility of e-mail entirely — meaning that these “marketing” scumbags are on the verge of killing off something that has become an essential part of so many people’s and businesses’ lives.

Mr. Stearns has done a tremendous job, looking at the sort of thing most of us (myself shamefully included) “just hit delete” on. He’s given us a good look at just what the spam problem looks like — and where it’s heading.

MC Rove
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