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Commercial junk mail sent over the Internet, commonly known as spam, is annoying consumers and costing businesses money.  In fact, the very usefulness of the Internet is at stake when people have to spend too much time deleting unwanted messages.

Spam Costs Money

 Spam is unique among common advertising techniques in that the recipient — not the marketer — bears most of the cost.  Internet Service Providers' (ISP) costs go up as spam increases.  For one thing, spam forces ISPs to buy more servers and pay personnel to figure out how to filter that spam — that in turn makes consumers' monthly ISP subscription fees go up.

A Ferris Research study estimates that spam will cost businesses $50 billion dollars in 2005 alone (due to lost productivity, bandwidth costs and money spent on filtering tools), with more than a third of that — $17 billion — coming from American businesses.  A different study from independent research company Nucleus Research, Inc. released in 2004, estimated that spam costs businesses $1,934 per employee every year, because employees spend an average of 15 minutes every day dealing with it. 

Congress – A Fix that Wasn't

In 2003, Congress attempted to address the problem of unwanted and annoying spam.  They enacted legislation called CAN-SPAM that allowed spam to continue unless a consumer affirmatively told the spammer to cut it out, called "opt-out."

There are some good provisions in CAN-SPAM — it prohibits deceptive subject lines and return addresses and criminalizes sending sexually-oriented emails without clear labels.  However, on the downside, the law allows the roughly 25 million businesses in America to continue to legally send you spam until you tell them to stop.

Consumers Union testified at a July 2003 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on spam before this legislation was passed.  At the time, Consumers Union's Legislative Counsel, Chris Murray, raised serious concerns about why this policy proposal would be ineffective at stopping unwanted email.

He testified, "Imagine trying to tell the difference between spam that is from a legitimate marketer, spam that originated from an overseas or offshore server, and spam that is simply a rip-off.  There is no way I can think of under an opt-out regime to differentiate between these different types of spam.  Opt-out may turn out to be a cop out."

Why Spam is Still Here

While the CAN-SPAM law was supposed to stem the tide of spam, Internet users still report that junk emails are continuing to floods their inboxes. The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing in May 2004 and asked Consumers Union to testify about CAN-SPAM's affects. 

At the hearing, CU's President, Jim Guest, testified: "There's simply no way for consumers to distinguish between legitimate marketers and rogue spammers who will misuse an unsubscribe link. The result is a consumer catch-22, where the main remedy the law provides - an opportunity to opt-out - is one consumers shouldn't use."

Consumer Reports continues to monitor whether the CAN-SPAM Act has any impact on reducing spam.  A September 2005 “Consumer Reports State of the Net” survey conducted by the magazine showed that while there was less spam overall, more than 1/3 of respondents received more.  In addition, half of  the respondents experienced “heavy levels of spam” following enactment of the CAN-SPAM law.

Solutions for Curbing Spam

The Federal Trade Commission has an expansive Web site for consumers wanting to stop spam.  It has several suggestions on how you can curb it. A September 2005 ConsumerReports.org article has 13 steps to take to minimize your online risk, and OnGuardOnline.gov, a website from the Federal Trade Commission, explains how you can protect yourself against from spam fraud.

Since CAN-SPAM is now law, it will take some time for Congress to decide to revisit the issue.  But the initiatives to limit spam are ongoing in the courts and on the Internet itself through anti-spam technologies. 

This is an important reason to maintain the ability of independent companies to innovate and provide new services on the Internet.  Open Access and Content has more information on this subject. 

Anti-Spam Measures and Free Speech?

Although CAN-SPAM exempts non-profits and does not regulate spam from political or religious groups, free speech advocates worry that legitimate messages from these groups are still getting blocked by Internet Service Providers' anti-spam technology. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a white paper in November 2004 that raised concerns about anti-spam technologies that could block wanted messages as easily as unwanted messages.  In their paper entitled "Collateral Damage," they describe anti-spam technologies' impact on free speech.

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