Spam Nation

It's a [bad] part of our everyday lives. Who's behind this stuff?
Of course, it's possible to disagree about whether permission was given to receive messages. Many of those who believe they've been spammed, Richter says, received the unwanted E-mail as a result of their own actions, such as registering for prizes at Web sites.

Steve Linford, director of the anti-spam site Spamhaus, disputes Richter's characterization. "Unfortunately, all spammers refer to themselves as legit E-mail marketers, since to them spamming is perfectly legitimate E-mail marketing," he says. Richter points to the lack of legal action against his company as proof that he's operating appropriately.

While courts will increasingly be asked to separate spammers from E-mail marketers, there's a chorus of skepticism about the impact of new laws.

Atkins sees the cost of enforcement as a problem. "Most of the spam out there breaks existing consumer-protection, criminal, or fraud laws," she says, echoing similar concerns voiced by ePrivacyGroup's Everett-Church. "But spammers are hard to prosecute. They hide, they lie, they cheat, and it costs a lot of money to track them down and build a case against them. That is money a lot of states don't have."

Richter concurs. "The people who these laws are supposed to be trying to attack, they're not going to be affected," he says. "The guy overseas isn't affected."

Still, with spam threatening to become the majority of all E-mail traffic, we haven't seen the last of high-profile prosecutions. And that how-to book the California duo was peddling had best include a chapter on how not to end up in court.

Illustration by Peter Horvath

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