Put spam in the can

Get-rich-quick schemes from Nigeria. Ads for Viagra. Credit-card scams. Porn, porn and more porn. And then more schemes from Nigeria.

If you own a computer, we don’t need to tell you what this is about: These are the kind of useless solicitations you find in your e-mail inbox day in and day out. They’re the spam that’s clogging the Internet, costing businesses billions and raising the hackles of everyone who doesn’t like having to wade through a pile of pornography and identity-theft scams each day as they check their e-mail.

There was a time not too long ago when spam could be considered a minor inconvenience. But the shocking growth of spam, which amounted to just 7 percent of all e-mail in 2001 but amounts to half of all e-mail today, has made it all too clear that this is an annoying problem and one that screams out for attention from federal legislators.

Business leaders are spearheading the drive for legislation, and with good reason. It’s estimated that American companies are now spending $9 billion each year to pay for the additional Internet capacity they need to handle spam and to filter it from their systems. Joining the fray are parents’ groups and Christian organizations who want to protect children from viewing the pornography that is often sent out via spam. Law-enforcement groups, who say that spam is frequently used to facilitate credit scams and identity theft, also have been supportive, as have privacy-rights advocates.

That widespread support is the reason Congress is now considering no less than five bills that would seek to curtail spam. There’s every reason to believe that some form of regulation will pass, and we want to encourage our lawmakers to support the bill that stands the best chance of making a real difference: Senate Bill 1231.

The bill, sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would create a national “do not spam” registry similar to the “do not call” registry created recently to thwart telemarketers. It would impose a $5,000-per-violation penalty on spammers who do not comply, require that all unsolicited commercial e-mail be labeled as “ADV” in the subject line, and provide for stiff penalties for those who mail porn to minors.

The Schumer bill has a chance because it puts the burden for stopping spam where it belongs: with the spammers. Other measures before Congress require consumers to “opt out” of a given mailing list before any penalties can be levied. That’s a tactic that’s all too easily circumvented; spammers simply can change their sending addresses and claim to be operating different lists. Moreover, it’s well-known that replying to the “opt out” function supplied by many spammers often has the unintended consequence of attracting more spam; the senders use the replies as a way to confirm e-mail addresses.

Spam very quickly has evolved into one of the most invasive, distasteful, dishonest forms of marketing ever to assail the American consumer, and it’s getting worse by the day. We urge Congress to pass Senate Bill 1231 and put a lid on spam.