Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

A model for fighting spam?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 9, 2003
(Issue 2119, The Eye of the Beholder)

A new web site from the California attorney general allows you to add your phone number (or numbers) to the pending federal do not call registry.

By going to, you can pre-register for a new federal law that forces telemarketers to refrain from calling any number that has been registered. The list should go into effect in October, barring major technical glitches.

The first reaction to visiting the above site is that it is a perfect example of taking advantage of the power of computers to do drudge work more affordably, efficiently and accurately than humans. No need to worry about typos as numbers are entered by a clerk – although that's not to say the general public adding their numbers will always get it right, either.

But adding numbers directly to the database is far more efficient and poses fewer opportunities for new errors than any manual system could.

The second – and perhaps more important – reaction is that this could be a precursor in the fight against spam.

If Congress can authorize a do not call list of telephone numbers, why not a do not e-mail list of electronic addresses?

Not so difficult

The argument against something like a do not spam list is that it's too hard to identify spammers (more on that below). That even if there were a do not spam list, enforcing it would be impossible.

But telemarketers are no less sleazy than spammers, yet most consumer-protection outfits seem to think the do not call list is a good idea.

It may not stop all telemarketers (and nonprofit charities, political campaigns and businesses you already have a relationship with are exempt), but it will give consumers and law enforcement another tool.

Just as laws against fax spam didn't immediately stop that nuisance, it will likely take a few successful lawsuits and legal challenges against the do not call list to make a difference.

But fax spam isn't nearly the annoyance today it was a decade ago – a few high-profile class-action lawsuits with huge monetary penalties made sure of that.

No real place to hide

While spammers try to hide their identities with masking software that makes it difficult to trace the e-mail account the spam was sent from, they can't really hide – not if they want your money.

At some point, they have to point you to a web site, offer a legitimate e-mail address or provide a telephone number for you to call. Spam is sent to try to sell you something – Viagra or porn or online gambling or something else they think there's a market for. And you can't close the deal without a contact point.

It's their fatal flaw. Because those contact points can be traced by law enforcement and courts, can be used to establish legal liability.

Time to act

Having AOL sue four profligate spammers in mid-April was a good start, but it won't be enough.

We need a do not spam database to give us the tools to take back control of our Internet bandwidth, our computer storage space – access to our very homes.

That's the foundation of the do not call list – that we each have a right to limit who enters our home, whether physically or electronically. It's a principle that applies to unwanted, unwelcome and unsought e-mail as much as it does to those types of phone calls.

As the do not call list showed, Congress will take action even in the face of fierce opposition from the business community (which fought the do not call list and opposes any restrictions on spam), but only if there is clear demand from voters.

The ball's in our court.