The Usenet newsgroup "news.admin.net-abuse.e-mail" is not a civil place. Blood always runs high on the Net when the topic is spam -- unwanted commercial or bulk e-mail -- and "n.a.n-a.e" is ground zero for pro-spam ardor and anti-spam rage.
So when Stanton McCandlish, a program director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, kicked off a new topic in the newsgroup last month to straighten out "confusion" over EFF's stance on spam, it was inevitable he'd come under immediate attack. Still, the response to McCandlish was an eye-opener -- dramatic proof of an attitudinal sea change in how the Net is confronting the blight of spam.
What McCandlish posted was a restatement of the classic Net libertarian view on how to deal with problems on the Internet: "Yes, [spam] is a major problem," he wrote. But any "anti-spamming legislation" aimed at stamping out spam should be "very narrowly tailored": "The goal cannot be simply passing more laws. The goal needs to be stopping spam ... at the source with technical solutions, with minor adjustments in the law where necessary."
The reaction from the newsgroup veterans was ferocious: They immediately derided McCandlish's statement and criticized EFF as spammer-friendly and naive. Technological solutions have failed to do more than slightly slow down the rise of spam, they charged. Bring in the feds!
Any latter-day digital Rip van Winkle who had slept through the last few years of Usenet discourse could be excused for rubbing his eyes in disbelief. If, three years ago, some brave fool had stumbled into such a discussion and demanded that spam be outlawed, enraged Ayn Rand-quoting defenders of Net freedom would have immediately pummeled the poor soul into a bloody pool of ASCII text. But today, the opposite is true -- those who speak against government intervention are set upon and gang-tackled.
Remember the old saw that claims a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged? These days, a liberal is a libertarian who has been spammed.
Like its predecessor, of course, the joke invites vigorous rebuttal. To many of the anti-spam fighters, the issue at hand is fundamentally libertarian: the protection of private property. Spammers take unfair advantage of other people's mail servers, Internet routers and e-mail boxes for their own profit. Libertarians accept the reality that government is needed to enforce "no trespassing" laws. Junk e-mail, or spam, they argue, is trespassing in cyberspace.
There are plenty of dissenters: Direct marketers don't want legislation, nor do numerous factions of anti-spam entrepreneurs on the Net. But the political battle is heating up. As the Internet becomes more mainstream, spam has become the kind of populist issue that makes Washington pay attention.
As well it should. The fight against spam isn't of concern just to the loudmouths who argue endlessly in Usenet. How this struggle plays out will go a long way toward defining how the Internet functions as a medium for commerce. Forget about Web banners and pop-up ads -- your e-mail box is the real battleground, the most desirable territory at stake in cyberspace.
Although Congress failed to pass any spam-related legislation in 1998 -- hoping still for some form of effective "self-regulation" -- anti-spam fighters have scored notable victories over the last year. Both California and Washington state enacted anti-spam legislation. The notorious "Spamford" Wallace, besieged on all sides, was finally sent packing. In the technology realm, even as spammer techno-tricks became ever more sophisticated, Paul Vixie's RealTime Blackhole List, a powerful method for "shunning" Internet service providers who allow the transmission of spam, achieved moderate victories that forced several ISPs to reconfigure their systems in less spam-friendly ways.
But even Vixie sees the Blackhole List as no more than a holding action. Legislation is inevitable, he says, "because technical solutions did not work, and it's getting harder and harder to defend technology as a solution to spam."
Leading the fight for legislation is CAUCE, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. Scott Mueller, CAUCE chairman, is confident that the anti-spam victories at the state level will continue. Spammers are getting a free ride, he says, and Congress will eventually be forced to acknowledge that.
"There is just no point for a legitimate advertiser to try to challenge the right of a system owner to set advertising policy for his/her system," says Mueller. "And fundamentally, that's what this fight boils down to -- it's not about free speech, it's about property rights. An Internet-connected computer system is property, it belongs to someone and that someone has an unequivocal right to determine how that property will be used."
But despite all the successes, spam levels continue to rise, according to monitors of network traffic. Now, more than ever, marketers are recognizing e-mail as the Internet's killer application.
For the past year, and particularly over the last six months, online advertising agency executives have watched in dismay as "clickthrough rates" -- the percentage of people who click on Web banner ads -- have plummeted. At the same time, veterans of the direct marketing industry have become increasingly entranced by the relatively low cost of e-mail marketing campaigns -- as compared to actually sending physical pieces of mail or making telemarketing calls. The result is that the pressure exerted by advertisers desperate to reach your e-mail in box is growing just as fast as the popular resentment against the hordes of get-rich schemes and come-hither porn solicitations that daily clog the Internet's millions of mail-server computers.
The Direct Marketing Association, a trade organization for "businesses interested in database marketing," is paying close attention to the potential value of e-mail marketing on a mass scale. As an article posted on the DMA's Web site notes, "E-mail is outpacing telemarketing and traditional direct mail as the fastest growing form of business-to-business marketing." The article goes on to quote Forrester Research as predicting that 135 million people will use e-mail by the year 2001, and that some 250 billion commercial messages will be sent by 2002.
The DMA adamantly opposes any legislation that will outlaw junk e-mail, arguing, like the veteran Net libertarians, that technological solutions are preferable to government intervention.
"I think that ultimately technology is going to address all of this," says Patricia Faley, vice president for government affairs at the DMA. "My feeling is that the government can legislate all it wants, but the Internet being global, it is going to be very difficult to enforce laws across states and borders."
Most of all, the DMA opposes the Smith Bill, a proposed federal law that would equate junk e-mail with junk faxes and penalize advertisers for each piece of junk e-mail sent.
"Marketers are poised to capitalize on unsolicited commercial e-mail as a communication to potential customers," said Jerry Cerasale, senior VP for government affairs at the DMA, in a statement to the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year. "Our members want to preserve the freedom to test and integrate unsolicited commercial e-mail."
Ultimately, Congress chose to do nothing, aside from expressing its desire that the direct marketing industry regulate itself. At virtually the same instant, a new spam debate ignited over the latest proposal for industry self-regulation -- a global "opt-out" list dubbed SAFEeps, for "SAFE e-mail preference service."
In spamming parlance, "opt-out" means that the recipient of an unsolicited message is given the option of forbidding the sender from sending further messages. A global opt-out list is a preemptive strike -- an attempt to create a central repository of e-mail addresses whose owners have said no to unsolicited mail. Advertisers who wish to send mass e-mail can, for a small fee, "wash" their mailing lists against such opt-out lists and, theoretically, end up with "clean" lists that have been purged of troublesome spam haters. SAFEeps also includes an "opt-in" component, in which consumers can register their willingness to receive e-mail on particular topics.
Opt-out lists aren't new. But prior to SAFEeps, virtually all attempts at global opt-out lists had been generated by spammers themselves, and they all failed. Most seemed designed to harvest e-mail addresses for future spamming rather than to actually prevent spamming.
But SAFEeps is an opt-out list of a different color, primarily because of the unique status of its creator, Rodney Joffe. Joffe is both a 20-year member of the DMA and a veteran of the Internet. As chief technical officer for his own Internet service provider, Genuity, Joffe battled against spam for years. When he calls spam a threat to the core values of the Internet, many leaders of the anti-spam contingent believe he means it.
Indeed, Joffe's position is bolstered by the fact that he has come under sustained criticism from both the DMA and the anti-spamming hard core. The DMA has been touting the creation of its own global opt-out list for months. One source within CAUCE indicated that Joffe's debut of SAFEeps caught the DMA by surprise.
The reason? SAFEeps allows "domain name-wide opt-out" -- in other words, the owner of an entire Internet domain can choose to opt-out on behalf of all addresses in that domain. Joffe says that after only two weeks of existence, SAFEeps already has 45 million e-mail addresses on the list -- owing mainly to the decision by Hotmail, the free e-mail provider, and America Online to opt-out all their users.
The DMA opposes domain-name-wide opt-out. Joffe suggests that's because the direct marketers depend on individual laziness to keep mailing-list numbers high. Patricia Faley, the DMA vice president, has a different take: "Our position has always been that we want to put ultimate choice in the hands of the individual consumer. Do we want to give a large entity the ability to make decisions on behalf of all of their consumers?"
Joffe is charging $29.95 for each "list wash," but he says his goal isn't to make money. Since he sold Genuity to GTE, he says, he's financially comfortable enough to devote himself to the task of stopping spam. And by charging a fee, he notes, he gets access to a credit card number. If any spammer advertises itself as operating according to SAFEeps, and then sends e-mail to a recipient who has opted out, Joffe will attack.
"If you don't play by our rules," says Joffe, "we will hunt you down and bury you ... The bulk of my financial investment here is in setting up the legal framework to crack heads within hours. We know that there will be abuse. What we've counted on is that there will be abuse rapidly, so we've set up the mechanisms to redress that very quickly."
If it doesn't work, says Joffe, so be it. SAFEeps is the best he can do to create a legitimate space for targeted e-mail on the Net. If it fails, and federal legislation is required, he will accept it.
"I think ultimately we will see legislation," says Joffe. "I'm against legislation. I think it's a bad thing. But I think spam is even worse."
From the anti-spammer side of the aisle, SAFEeps is still suspect. Most spam-haters reject any form of opt-out list. E-mail marketing on the Net, they argue, must always be opt-in: That is, the recipient must have previously expressed an interest in receiving e-mail, perhaps by registering at a Web site, or contacting an advertiser directly, or registering one's interests with a specialist in assembling opt-in lists.
"Opt-in should be the only model for the Internet," says Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, an anti-spam advocacy group.
The concept of opt-in advertising may seem unlikely at first --
there is no corollary for it in other media, like radio, TV, print or billboards. On the contrary, the whole thrust of modern advertising is to push ever further into every corner of our lives whether we like it or not. We don't get to say no. Why would we ask for more of it?
But the Net is different, argue the advocates of opt-in. The same interactivity that makes it so easy for advertisers to pound consumers with mass e-mail makes it easy for recipients to respond -- which, in turn, explains why so many dedicated spammers forge fake return addresses.
Opt-in sounds idealistic, but it is a fact of life on the Net. There are well-established companies that swear that they are making good money simply by assembling mailing lists of consumers who have expressed interest in a particular topic, like Java programming or model airplanes, and selling the use of those lists to carefully controlled clients.
PostMaster Direct is one such company. Indeed, according to founder and president Rosalind Resnick, the company "pioneered opt-in e-mail marketing on the Net." After two and half years of operation, Resnick says, PostMaster Direct has a database of nearly 2 million people, and enjoyed revenues of $3.5 million over the last year.
"At a time when banner ads are generating 1 percent clickthrough," says Resnick, "we get between 5 and 15 percent on our mailings ... Our database is growing by 5,000 or 6,000 people a day -- double what we were seeing six months ago ... We've raised our prices twice in the last year."
Mueller, CAUCE's chairman, says PostMaster Direct is an example of how to do e-mail marketing correctly.
"If you go back and look at some of the surveys about spam done for various online publications," says Mueller, "you'll note that from 20 to 25 percent of the respondents seem to want ads ... The thing is, not only do that group of people want ads, they're willing to tell someone what ads they want. That is really incredibly valuable marketing information -- worth more than enough to make up for leaving the other 75 to 80 percent of people alone. And I'm willing to wager a dollar that, if spam were stopped entirely, more and more of that large majority would sign up for legitimate solicited marketing-oriented publications -- ads or ad-supported services."
Resnick rejects both opt-out style lists in the form of SAFEeps, as well as anti-spam legislation. The success of opt-in marketing, she believes, will inspire other companies to choose that route and avoid angering potential consumers. Indeed, she goes even further, suggesting that the opt-in model could potentially spread beyond the boundaries of the Internet.
"The Net is a much more responsive medium," says Resnick. "In the postal world, consumers don't have the tools to make their voices heard. But on the Internet they do, and as consumers realize that they have the power to level the playing field, they are going to start demanding the same kinds of rights in the postal and telemarketing worlds. We are going to see a lot more consumer empowerment in the future."
Junkbuster's Catlett, although differing with Resnick in supporting anti-spam legislation, agrees with her on the possibilities for empowerment.
"I think it is realistic to believe that we can continue to hold off the unmitigated exploitation of the [Internet] medium by marketers," says Catlett. "We accept as Americans that telemarketing calls are an unavoidable part of life, but in other countries they don't accept that at all. It's partially cultural and partly legal, but really it is a matter of the consumer's acceptance as to which degree the medium is exploited."
Could the fight against spam turn the tide against the seemingly unstoppable influx of in-your-face advertising in the offline world?
Could opt-in become the calling card of a new generation? Wishful thinking, perhaps. But keep an eye on what arrives in your e-mail -- and what doesn't.