October, Cyber Promotions agreed to desist. When people take the trouble to
implement this amount of falsification to get around the rules, they must know
they're doing something wrong even if it's not illegal.
These guys are only the scouts; the real pack will follow them onto the Net
sometime in late 1997 if the Direct Marketing Association has its way; it spent six
months writing a report to consider the question of how to make junk email
respectable. The plan, as of early 1997, is to set up an Email Preference Service,
which, like the telephone and postal Preference Services, would allow consumers
to add their names to a list of those who don't want to get such mailings. Privacy
campaigners such as the organization Privacy International believe the opposite
approach--you opt in if you want the mailings but are left untroubled otherwise--
would be more appropriate. Since on the Net, like at the fax machine, the user
pays, this is a legitimate argument. Meanwhile, some of the early sales sites on the
Web are doing their best to choke off electronic commerce at the start by pursuing
hapless shoppers with unwanted "newsletters." One of the worst offenders was the
British publisher Penguin, whose marketing department in 1996 anti-publicized a
new Web novel by clobbering the Net with millions of copies of a hoax virus
message that claimed that reading the message would delete all the files on your
computer. Penguin called it "Irina," but this hoax first circulated under the name
"Good Times" and has since turned up as "Penpal Greetings" and "Deeyenda." The
message is harmless, in that a text message can't contain a virus, which has to be
embedded in a program file; the "virus" is merely the fact that everyone who sees
the message for the first time thinks the warning is real and, meaning to be helpful,
sends out copies to all their friends.
Businesses with reputations to protect might bother checking their lists against the
one from a Preference Service, but it's a fair guess that most of today's spammers
wouldn't, given their current track record. One thing the larger service providers
could do is supply their users with better tools. One reason AOL and CompuServe
have such a problem with junk email is that their built in email software is poor; it
lacks the filtering and killfiling abilities Internet users have enjoyed
for years. Blocking whole sites is unreliable if the spammer is forging headers, and
for some larger services it could be too much of a blunt-instrument approach. I
could block aol.com, but in doing that I'd also be blocking email from my agent and
several of my oldest friends.
It would also be nice if the major services implemented controls to stop junk email
from being sent from their own sites. One of the ironies of AOL's ban on Cyber
Promotions and other junk email sites is that a lot of junk email comes from its own
service. You rarely see junk email from CompuServe because its design
All these real costs--including the expense of staffing an email complaints desk--
eventually must be borne by the consumer. Some commercial services have limits
on how many messages a user's mailbox can hold at a time, and junk email can
block out wanted email for those users. The cost of building better and more
flexible tools eventually gets paid for by the consumers who buy and use the
software or service. Since most killfiles and filters work by downloading the
messages and then discarding them, the user still pays for the downloads--and it's
not safe to assume that everyone is paying flat rates to their ISPs and gets free
local phone calls. Users outside North America and rural users inside North
America all have to pay per-minute phone charges. There is also the cost of users'
time in wading through the crap and deleting it or sending complaints. It sounds so
reasonable when the message says "Just hit delete" or "Just type remove" if you
don't want the message. But it doesn't seem like it when you have to do it forty-two
times a day or when the instructions are impossible to follow on your system.
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