Congress is preparing to prove that pornography can be good for the Internet.

To anyone familiar with the brief history of Net-related legislation, this should come as something of a shock. Online porn has been used to justify misguided censorship bids and attacks on school technology subsidies.

The fear that kids might seek out hardcore sex sites or, worse yet, stumble across them by accident has convinced otherwise reasonable people to back often-unconstitutional laws that could do great damage to the Net.

Recently, though, pornographers have given Congress a reason to get behind a good law that could put a serious dent in the spamming business. While unsolicited commercial e-mail causes more pressing problems than dirty pictures, focusing on the smut might just attract enough attention to solve them.

To most Net users, spam seems like little more than an annoyance. While some less savvy users are suckered by the misleading messages, it doesn't take much brainpower to realize that subject lines like "Make $$$$ Fast!!" and "Free Sex Now!!" don't lead to legitimate opportunities. Even if more cleverly worded headlines trick you into reading a message, your personal spam problem can be resolved with a few clicks of the delete key.

But for Internet service providers, this sort of spam is far more expensive than the store-bought variety.

ISPs must pay for the computing power and bandwidth it takes to process whatever unsolicited commercial e-mail is sent to their subscribers. Since spam accounts for up to 30 percent of some service providers' e-mail load, these costs add up fast.

An informal survey conducted last year by Internet Week magazine found that spam costs the online industry tens of millions of dollars a month in lost bandwidth, customer service and systems administration. The magazine estimated that nearly $2 of each Net users' monthly bill is attributable to spam.

As unfair as these costs are spammers themselves pay next to nothing for the burden they cause they haven't inspired Congress to impose any restrictions. Though several such bills have appeared during the past few sessions, they've never fought their way to the front of the crowded legislative calendar.

That may change early next year thanks to Rep. Gary Miller, R-Yorba Linda, who has introduced the "Can Spam Act." Miller sponsored California's anti-spam law before his election to Congress, and he'd like to impose similar restrictions at the federal level.

Miller's bill, a favorite of anti-spam activists, would give ISPs the right to sue spammers for $50 a message or up to $25,000 a day for sending their customers unsolicited commercial e-mail in violation of their posted anti-spam policy. It wouldn't restrict messages sent to ISPs that, for whatever reason, want to accept spam.

But since most would reject it, the law might convince big-time bulk e-mailers to climb out from under their pile of drained Thirstbuster cups and find a real job.

Miller isn't relying exclusively on common sense to sell his bill. Instead, he's hoping to attract the Republican-led Congress to his cause with the irresistible scent of moral indignation. Because as it turns out, many spam messages include solicitations from porn sites.

Miller called a recent press conference to highlight statistics produced by the Spam Recycling Center, where anti-spam activists have dissected 1 million unsolicited e-mail messages forwarded by Net users. They found that 30 percent of the messages were pornographic, including many that arrived with misleading message lines.

"You get an e-mail that says 'Sorry I missed you' or 'Here's a response to your question,' and all of a sudden you're into pornography," Miller said. "Our kids are going on their computers, pulling up their e-mail and getting into this stuff. We don't want it, and parents don't want it."

I suspect this pitch will be quite successful when Miller starts pushing his bill early next year. Anti-porn sentiment has been strong enough to carry many a bill off Capitol Hill, including a couple that were thrown out by courts after going too far to restrict sexually explicit content on the Net. It also has won support for a proposal to cut technology funding for schools that won't use flawed filtering software to block some porn sites.

Service providers and anti-spam activists may be more concerned about other aspects of unsolicited commercial e-mail. But they will have more success when they start focusing on what concerns the people who have to face reelection every two years.

They'll soon find that in Congress, like on the Net, sex sells.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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