You know what they say about sausages and laws: It's best not to watch while they're being made.
But the trouble with that is, if you don't keep a close eye on the process, the product can get pretty ugly.
Witness what happened to an anti-spam bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Heather Wilson. When the New Mexico Republican fed her bill into the meat grinder known as the U.S. House of Representatives, it would have protected Internet service providers and their customers from the costs associated with processing millions of unsolicited commercial e-mail messages.
But that was before the House Energy and Commerce Committee finished processing Wilson's bill last month. The measure may still look the same on the outside, but its new innards would actually impose new costs on Internet users.
The bill's original language would have compelled e-mail marketers to obey the spam policies posted by Internet service providers. If an ISP wanted to refuse all unsolicited commercial messages, it could simply post the equivalent of a "no trespassing" sign on its home page and sue anyone who violated it. Spammers who really wanted to reach customers of a particular ISP would be forced to approach that company and negotiate a price.High cost of spam
The problem with spam, you see, is that the cost of delivery is paid primarily by the recipient. ISPs must purchase enough equipment and bandwidth to handle all the messages their customers receive. So if half those messages are unsolicited commercial pitches a conservative estimate, judging by my inbox they're buying twice as much as they'd need in a world without spam.
A study recently completed for the European Commission estimated that Internet users around the world are spending about $9.4 billion a year to receive spam. That's a pretty big collect call, and we don't have any choice but to accept. Service providers try various tricks to stem the flow of spam, including expensive and complex filtering software that's only partly effective. But Wilson's bill would make it a federal crime to send spam without a reliable return address and other contact information, making it much easier to file lawsuits enforcing the spam policies the measure would authorize.
Anti-spam activists have been pushing the bill since last year, when it passed the House before stalling in the Senate. But they changed their minds after watching what happened to this year's version of the bill during its first committee hearing.Lobbyists prevail
At the urging of lobbyists representing direct marketers and bankers, committee members inserted a clause requiring ISPs to install spam-filtering software before they can post a policy rejecting unsolicited commercial e-mail. Since the policy would effectively replace the filter, the only real reason to require one is to make it too costly for smaller ISPs to take advantage of the law.
"That benefits no one but software companies, at the expense of the public," said Scott Hazen Mueller, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (cauce.org).
The bill also was changed to allow spammers to flood any school, company or other service provider with unwanted messages until they receive a complaint. And if that flood of messages happens to crash the mail servers, it might take a while before that complaint could be sent out.
"It's the equivalent of denying property owners the right to post a 'No Trespassing' sign and instead requiring them to send trespassers an engraved invitation to go away," said John Levine, an anti-spam activist and author of "Internet for Dummies." "This bill will let everybody trample your flowers first before you're allowed to chase them away."
Mueller, Levine and other activists are trying to rally opposition to the revised version of the bill before it reaches the floor. If they fail, the House may well be in the odd position of passing an anti-spam bill that actually encourages spam.
To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
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