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Stuck with Spam

Stuck with Spam

According to a spokesman for their Federal Ministry of the Interior, German parliamentarians and government employees experienced long delays with their e-mail delivery in May, following a flood of spam that clogged the government's e-mail system.

"We aren't having any difficulty so far today but, yes, we have had problems this week," the spokesman was reported as saying, while declining to advise whether the flood of unwanted e-mail was the result of a targeted attack or an internal computer hitch.

Deliciously ironic, since the crippling deluge hit smack bang in the middle of a German government debate on an antispam law.

Then during our recent federal election campaign, irony piled on irony as Prime Minister John Howard was accused of contravening the intention of his own government's antispam laws by sending unsolicited e-mails to voters in his electorate. Both the ALP and the founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Emails (CAUBE), who was running against the Prime Minister in his Sydney seat of Bennelong, accused the Prime Minister of being unethical after he admitted he had personally paid a company run by his son Tim to send unsolicited e-mails to voters in the electorate. They charged Howard with exploiting a loophole in federal antispam laws which gives governments, political parties, charities or religious organizations a free ride to send spam.

This despite one of the architects of the legislation - online policy manager of the government's National Office for the Information Economy Lindsay Barton - telling a Senate committee last year: "The government was concerned about unintended consequences [of the laws]."

Barton said the exemption was to protect such groups from being penalized for unintended consequences, not to allow or encourage them to send unsolicited mass e-mails.

Many people hate spam the way they hate telemarketing calls and having their letterbox filled with unwanted junk mail - for its annoyance value, its inconvenience, and because they resent incurring Internet access costs for activities that only benefit the spam marketer the way they resent having to haul brochures and mailings out of the letterbox and dump them in the recycle bin.

Their frustration is perfectly rational, given how little spam is targeted to the interests of its recipients. People daily receive spam touting products they are physically incapable of using, or have no interest in buying, and from fraudsters and conmen. Such is the level of resentment that companies overindulging in spam run a real risk of alienating a significant share of their potential market.

But while some demand governments outlaw spam altogether, others love getting spam, just as they love getting telemarketing calls and wading through endless supermarket catalogues dumped in their letterboxes. That these people respond to spam is what keeps it profitable. For them, spam is relevant and helpful.

And while public complaints over spam have forced governments everywhere to look for solutions, it is unlikely any law ever passed will be strong enough to eliminate spam altogether. If it were, it would seem inevitable that it would hamper both free speech and free trade.

The good news is that antispam filters are growing stronger all the time, and for those who cannot or will not use such technology there is one other simple remedy - it is called the delete key.

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