August 12, 1998
Unsolicited e-mail advertisements, also known as Spam, is increasingly becoming a major problem for Internet users. But is it protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Spencer Michaels reports.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 11, 1998:
Will the Year 2000 bring chaos to the world's computer systems?
May 8, 1998:
A look at the hacker threat.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the cyberspace.
The Junk e-mail Resource Page.
Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial e-mail.
WOMAN: Don't you want your eight-year-old daughter, you know, downloading this in her e-mail box and opening it?
Unsolicitied e-mail advertisments flood the Internet.
SPENCER MICHELS: Like millions of Americans who use their computers to send and receive electronic messages or e-mail on the Internet, California Assemblywoman Debra Bowen is annoyed by unwanted advertisements, mail she considers trash.
DEBRA BOWEN, California Assemblywoman: This is the list of e-mail that's come into my account on America OnLine in the last day and a half, and you can get a sense of it. "Get a college degree in six months, really," and then we get into this stuff, "Hot studs," "Check out these celebrities." This is the kind of stuff that I think really annoys people.
SPENCER MICHELS: I thought AOL was supposed to filter this stuff.
DEBRA BOWEN: They claim to filter it, but you can see how much impact it has.
SPENCER MICHELS: Unsolicited junk e-mail is booming. America OnLine, the largest provider of Internet service, says it must deal with up to 4.2 million pieces of it a day. Some is eliminated but much gets through. The junk messages range from selling a product to get-rich-quick schemes to pornography. Adult e-mail like this appeared in the computer mailbox of an 11-year-old boy. Internet service providers say their members, regardless of age, are getting jammed with junk.
GLEE CADY, Netcom: We have individual subscribers, company subscribers—
SPENCER MICHELS: Glee Cady, senior director at Netcom, one of those Internet service providers, or ISP's, says members complain often about the garbage in their mailboxes.
GLEE CADY: They most frequently complain about that which is directed to adult-oriented material showing up in a mailbox where a young child can see it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Netcom also tries, with limited success, to eliminate the unwanted material. Netcom estimates it spends $1 million a month trying to do that. And those costs are then passed on to subscribers.
GLEE CADY: We think that maybe of your $24.95 or your $19.95 costs, as much as 10 percent of that might be going to our processing Spam to keep it our of your mailbox.
SPENCER MICHELS: Spam? That usually refers to a meat product made by Hormel, but the name Spam has been hijacked, much to Hormel's dismay, to describe how these mass e-mail ads pollute the Internet.
GLEE CADY: It came from a Monte Python sketch.
MONTY PYTHON: Could I have egg, bacon, Spam, and sausage without the Spam?
GLEE CADY: There was a wonderful, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam skit.
SPENCER MICHELS: How do you know that that's where it came from?
GLEE CADY: It's an Internet legend.
Vikings: "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam."
SPENCER MICHELS: The legend is that, like Monty Python's vikings chanting "Spam," electronic Spam drowns out all other voices. Virtually anyone with a computer can send Spam around the globe. Much the same as home addresses, e-mail addresses are often sold, and they're cheap. Lists of millions of e-mail addresses can be purchased for around $50 or even list. And since bulk advertising on the Internet is so easy, it has some appeal even to legitimate businesses. For example, the founders of Virtual Vineyards, a Palo Alto firm that sells wine and gift baskets to thousands of customers on the Internet, flirted briefly with mass e-mail solicitations. Robert Olson says he was not happy with the outcome.
ROBERT OLSON, Virtual Vineyards: We have twice used lists. This was a couple of years ago with a partner who told us that all of these people had agreed to receive e-mail from companies such as ours. That attempt had two major problems with it. One is it didn't turn out very many customers and second, we got a staggering amount of hate mail back from people who were on the list who wanted to know how come they were receiving these solicitations. We've never done it since.
SPENCER MICHELS: One of the major problems with eliminating Spam is the fact that often it is difficult to determine who is sending it. Many Spammers use false return addresses and fake company or domain names. J. D. Falk is a Spam detective of sorts. He works for Critical Path, a San Francisco company that manages e-mail for large organizations, and his job is to track where Spam originates.
J. D. FALK, Critical Path: The majority of repeat Spammers that we see are trying to sell software so that you can go out and be a Spammer.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some Internet service providers like America Online have banned individual Spammers from using their network. But Falk says that most people who send junk mail are unaware of the cost to the recipient and to the ISP.
J. D. FALK: Most are misguided. They just haven't really thought about the impact of what they're doing. Some of them—they continue doing it after they've thought about the impact, and they are the textbook definition of a sociopath.
SPENCER MICHELS: Really, a sociopath? A guy who's trying to make a living?
J. D. FALK: They get beyond trying to do it for a living. It gets to be kind of a revenge thing for a lot of them, where they've been kicked off of ISP after ISP, they know that nobody wants it, they know that they are disrupting society, and they keep doing it, and that's the definition of a sociopath.
SPENCER MICHELS: Almost all e-mail users find Spam annoying, but some people think it could ultimately cause the death of the Internet. Carey Heckman directs Stanford's Law & Technology program.
CAREY HECKMAN, Stanford Law School: I think the biggest danger is it would grow to the point where it would use up a lot of the capacity of the Internet that would change the costs, increase costs by a great deal, and basically people would stop using Internet. It would say this is just a place with a lot of advertising; it's not really useful communication.
SPENCER MICHELS: Eric Allman wants to make sure the Internet does not become obsolete because of Spam. He founded the California company Sendmail, which makes software to facilitate e-mail. Allman developed a program that attempts to filter out suspicious mass mailings.
ERIC ALLMAN, Sendmail: So, for example, if I get mail from, you know, Tammy, I don't know anyone named Tammy, I probably don't want to accept that, I reject mail from hosts that simply don't exist, so Spammers use fake domain names so that when you try and complain to them, there's nobody to complain to.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Allman says his Spam filters can't catch it all.
A Spam arms race?
ERIC ALLMAN: There's lots of Spam out there, and it is an arm's race. As we get better, they get better. People comply lists of Spammers; they try and create fingerprints of what Spam looks like. There are some attempts to do artificial intelligence to guess when something's pornographic. I don't think that's likely to work. It's hard to tell.
SPENCER MICHELS: Besides, according to Assemblywoman Bowen, the Spammers actively look for ways to foil filters.
DEBRA BOWEN: I wondered at some point why all these porno people couldn't spell, and I realized they're deliberately misspelling these words to get around the porn filters.
SPENCER MICHELS: As lawmakers have become more technologically adept and as they have received more and more complaints, some of them have been introducing bills to curtail Spam. In Congress and in several states, including here in California, laws have been proposed to attack the problem on several fronts. In California, Assemblywoman Bowen has introduced a bill to make sure residents can have their name removed from a Spammer's mailing list.
DEBRA BOWEN: It's the same thing we do with junk mail that goes through your U.S. Postal Service mailbox. You can get off the mailing list, and you can also get off a telephone solicitation list, although I think most people don't know that.
SPENCER MICHELS: And you believe that your legislation could stop this person from sending this kind of thing?
DEBRA BOWEN: It's a misdemeanor under the bill if you e-mail to someone who has opted out. So there's actually jail time possible. But the other thing that's important that you just highlighted is that we require that people give their true return address.
GARY MILLER, California Assemblyman: We're trying to say you should not be forced to pay for something you don't want in your home. And that's what's happening today.
SPENCER MICHELS: Assemblyman Gary Miller has another bill that allows the Internet service providers to ban Spam and to sue those who send it. Under Miller's bill the ISP's could sue Spammers for up to $15,000 every day they send Spam.
GARY MILLER: It puts the provider into a situation where they can go to court and have legal recourse against Spammers. I don't want the state to get involved in the Internet. I don't want to limit freedom of speech. But I want reasonable controls placed in the hands of people who own private property. And that's what we're trying to do.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although there has been little opposition to either bill, Ann Brick, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, is concerned that what legislators are doing will limit freedom of speech.
Is Spam protected by the First Amendment?
ANN BRICK, American Civil Liberties Union: Well, commercial speech has value. It's protected by the First Amendment. And that's because what may be junk mail to me could very well be important, useful information to you. And that's a decision that the individual should be making. But it isn't a decision that the government ought to be making for us and it isn't a decision that Internet service providers ought to be making either, because what we're talking about here is commerce in ideas.
GARY MILLER: Well, if empowering the citizens and justifying their principal rights, I believe, constitutionally of private property, and the right they have to not receive pornographic literature if they don't want to receive it, if doing that is limiting freedom of speech, I think that's a far stretch to justify.
SPENCER MICHELS: But the ACLU position gets support from Robert Olson at Virtual Vineyards, who deplores the Spam on his computer, but, nonetheless, fears the state's involvement.
ROBERT OLSON: I am uncomfortable with government intervention in what I consider to be personal freedoms like that. We work in the alcoholic beverage industry, and it's a very highly regulated area. Not all the regulations are designed to protect consumers. Many of them are designed to protect other individuals. It's easy to start out with good intentions in regulation and end up destroying some fundamental personal right.
SPENCER MICHELS: And even some of those who support regulation don't expect it to work at the state level.
ROBERT OLSON: It's so unrelated to the nature of this technology, this is a global technology, the best answer is going to be a combination of some federal government action, perhaps even some international agreements, combined with industry getting together and agreeing on some basic practices.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, both California bills are expected to become law later this summer. The U.S. Congress is considering similar measures at the federal level, but it's unclear when they'll be acted upon.