Spam, Privacy, and the Art of Free
By Dick Kaser
I know that we're all deluged with it daily. I know that we all hate having
to delete it. But in self-defense, spam pundits are clamoring "free speech!" It's
what those pesky telemarketers claim too.
As much as I hate people barging into my house to force their message on
me, I'll concede that freedom of speech is an important concept we don't want
to abandon for the mere sake of minimizing inconvenience.
In Europe, where the topic has been discussed heatedly, the issue is often
expressed as one of privacy. And that's an important concept too.
The difference in how authorities on each side of the Atlantic are dealing
with this is subtle. In Europe, you opt into distribution lists. In
the States, you opt out. In other words, in Europe, you don't have to
open your door to an unsolicited e-mail. In the States, you get to slam the
door in the sender's face (which is also free speech).
Opting in or opting out only really affects the law-abiding e-mailers. Neither
of these options in and of itself stops the true junk. Other laws can and should
In the EU, new laws going into effect this fall prohibit a spammer from disguising
his or her identity or giving a false return address. (I wonder if"Elton John" is
aware he sent an e-mail this morning offering to sell me antidepressants?)
Congress is currently considering several pieces of legislationincluding
the Burns-Wyden CAN-SPAM Actthat might, in part, harmonize EU and U.S.
In saving ourselves time, money, and aggravation by trying to put the lid
on spam, we shouldn't sacrifice our highest principles in order to weed out
a few bad apples. And most truly bad spam comes from just a few hundred sources.
In the American legal tradition, free speech is the right to say what you
think. But landmark court cases have ruled that that does not include the right
to create a public panic by falsely crying fire in a crowded theater. Though
privacy in the American tradition is more murky, in the divine words of Justice
Louis Brandeis, it isand should remain"the right to be left alone."
As Congress moves forward to join the EU in freeing us from the burden of
having to process spam, our legislators should be reminded that the basic principles
of free speech and privacy should not be sacrificed in the process.
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of
content. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.