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Magazines > Information Today > June 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 6 — June 2003
Spam, Privacy, and the Art of Free Speech
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 apply.

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 legislation—including the Burns-Wyden CAN-SPAM Act—that might, in part, harmonize EU and U.S. laws.

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 is—and 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
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