Web Techniques Magazine
September 1997
Volume 2, Issue 9

Hold the Spam, Please

Amidst cries to do something about spamming, the Internet community has found an unlikely ally in, of all companies, Hormel Foods. This past July, lawyers from the company contacted Philadelphia-based Cyber Promotions and requested that it not use pictures of the canned meat product or the Spam name in its advertisements to promote their junk email service. Cyber Promotions, as you may recall, sued America Online for violating its right to free speech when the service provider attempted to block the junk emailer from spamming its seven million subscribers. After a much-publicized legal battle, it was ruled that private online services have a right to block unsolicited email solicitations.

Because spamming has achieved slang status and come to mean many things, I decided it was time to set the record straight. There are really two types of spam. The term originally sprang up on Usenet newsgroups to describe the excessive posting of the same message on multiple discussion groups. (The origin of the term is in dispute, although there are some entertaining stories floating around the Net.) Newsgroup spamming takes one of two forms-Excessive Multi-Posting (EMP) and Excessive Cross-Posting (ECP). While both forms result in multiple postings, they affect the Net differently. Cross posting includes the address of all newsgroups on a single line, resulting in a single post on every news server around the world. EMP has a more widespread effect, because it individually addresses a message to each group, resulting in multiple posts (one for each individual discussion group) to the news server.

The other type of spam that got Cyber Promotions into hot water with AOL, and now Hormel, is junk email. Junk email has also been the subject of several bills on capitol hill. The first is the Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Choice Act of 1997, which Catherine Kirkman describes in this month's "Doing Justice to the Web" column, on page 16. This bill proposes that unsolicited bulk mail contain an "Advertisement" tag in the subject field, which would allow filter programs to more easily identify and users to decide whether to accept the offending messages.

A second bill, the Electronic Mailbox Protection Act (SB 875), proposed by Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), addresses the problem of bulk emailers who use fraudulent email addresses and bounce their mailings off unsuspecting mail servers to avoid detection. Typically, bulk emailers who've been blacklisted by system administrators use this approach. However, the Clinton administration's new hands-off approach to the Internet likely means that neither bill will make it through the legislative process.

However, there is a proposal that would supplement the existing Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), enacted in 1991. The TCPA is the same bill that prevents advertisers from barraging your fax machine with junk faxes. In fact, the TCPA provided the basis for a lawsuit in 1995 by Robert Arkow against CompuServe when the online service sent two pieces of junk email to his electronic address. It seems that while the TCPA clearly bans junk faxes, it loosely defines the Telephone Facsimile Machine (TFM). Arkow's lawyers argued that interpreted literally, a computer with a modem and scanner could fall within the definition of a TFM. That argument was enough to force CompuServe to quietly settle out of court. Unfortunately, that also left the TFM definition untested.

This is where the Netizen's Protection Act (HR 1748) comes in. This proposal from Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) would add definitions for both computers and computer networks, and make it unlawful:

...to direct any commercial message to a computer or computer-network address unless such person clearly marks, at the top or bottom of the message, the date and time it is sent, the name of the business, other entity, or individual sending the message, and an electronic mail address of such business, other entity, or individual.

The free-speech issues raised by Cyber Promotions in its lawsuit against AOL were never addressed because AOL is deemed a private source. On the other hand, the TCPA in its current form has teeth and would be easier to push through. Either way, you can expect a lengthy discussion when it reaches the public arena.

Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd

editor in chief

editors@web-techniques.com

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Last modified: 2/5/97