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Sue and be Spammed

This week is my birthday and the spammers must have guessed, because the week set a record for the number of unsolicited email offers promising me cheap Viagra or promises to make me “The size you always wanted”. At my steadily advancing age however, I’m going to have to disappoint them, as I’m fast approaching the point of no return and an offer of a pair of comfy slippers or a Marks & Spencer cardigan might be more successful.

The end of our collective may be in site however, as on one side of the Atlantic, Microsoft is flexing its muscles with a long overdue anti-spam campaign and in London, this week, Derek Wyatt PM has organised the first ‘Spam Summit’ at Westminster.

In fact, I’m not really serious about the end being in sight and its taken Microsoft rather too long to appear as the concerned citizen over this problem. If you happen to use Hotmail, as I do, then it’s very likely that your name has been the victim of a ‘dictionary attack’ and 2.4 billion messages a day are blocked by the Microsoft Network. However, ‘special offers’ of the kind described earlier are still filling-up my own mailbox, which is inadequately protected by Hotmail’s user configured ‘anti-spam’ filter, so from where I sit, the problem is becoming worse.

Outside of my Hotmail account, I forward my BT ISP email to an Easynet account, which appears to filter out most of the unwanted messages that BT happily lets through. This is a crazy way to live and one should expect reasonable filtering from BT but not in my experience.

Having Microsoft use its considerable financial muscle to sue the worst of the bulk mailers, is at least a start and in June, the company filed fifteen separate actions, on both sides of the Atlantic against the companies and individuals who make the business of mass mailing a profitable nuisance. However, the vigorous clampdown on Spam is likely to have unwanted consequences, as has happened in the war against terrorism. As Sandy Starr of ‘Spiked’ points out, “Technologists and internet gurus who are otherwise pro-freedom, and who championed the principles behind the early development of the internet, have thrown their political principles away in the face of spam”

Real control over content on the Internet, unsolicited email, spam, call it what you like, simultaneously plays to the interests of those who see the open nature of the Internet as a social threat, whether this be in Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Peoples Republic of China.

Starr suggests that most if not all of the solutions aimed at stemming the flow of unsolicited email are muddled in their design and execution, one good example being the European Data Protection Directive and the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communication. Due to be implemented in October and” if interpreted strictly, it will make it illegal to send anyone an email that they weren't expecting, if that email could be construed as being in any way commercial”.

I will be attending the spam summit with interest because I’m not convinced that spam can be defeated without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Much like the threat from terrorism, which has made the world, a less free and more paranoid place, spam threatens to either overwhelm the Internet or accelerate it more quickly towards becoming the walled-garden that governments would prefer to see. Tragically, I cannot see a solution that provides for the total elimination of junk mail and for the continued spread of the open principles on which the Internet was originally founded.


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