This page responds to one of the ten recommended laws proposed by C-Net to regulate the Internet.

  The problem:  The amount of unsolicited commercial electronic mail is expanding, and many Internet users believe that the inconvenience caused them by such mail is unconscionable, and that the costs of such mail will increase Internet access costs.

The proposal:  "Sending unsolicited advertising via e-mail should be prohibited, unless the sender has a pre-existing relationship with the recipient or their consent to receive messages."

The survey:  At the time of my visit, 18,930 "netizens" had voted, with 83% supporting the proposal, against 17% opposing it.
This is my opinion--what's yours?
  I have never understood the e-mail problem.  I believe it is being tackled from the wrong end.  I also think that it is extremely self-serving of C-Net--which has a "pre-existing relationship" with thousands of "netizens"--to suggest that such a relationship should be the prerequisite for sending undesired mail.

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  There are nearly a dozen mailboxes on the Internet which I check for various business and personal needs.  I use the AOL system, as well as Microsoft Outlook, Netscape Messenger, HotMail, MailCity, and Yahoo! Mail.  Each system has advantages and disadvantages; but with each, I can deal with spam quickly and easily.  Furthermore, with a simple modification of the software, the Outlook and Messenger programs could be improved to include features common to the other systems which make it quite simple to deal with so-called spam.

  One of the first things to understand about advertising is that some of it is junk, and some if it is information--and that the difference depends on the recipient, and not on the nature of the material or the means of communication.  Every day, my snail mail box contains various flyers, catalogs, and sale papers for which I never asked.  Most of these go to the landfill unopened.  But I usually look at the Radio Shack catalog, and anything that has to do with computers, technology, business supplies--these are things about which I wish to stay informed.  I don't open anything I recognize as an effort to sell me cars, magazines, groceries, china, clothes, camping equipment, or so much more, even though I use many of these things, and sometimes buy them.  I don't wish to read about them.

  It is the same thing with the commercials on television, and the advertising in magazines.  When I see something which interests me, I usually give it my attention.  Otherwise, I ignore it.  I am one who watches the CLIO award shows--it is the only awards presentation show I ever watch--because I enjoy seeing good commercials.  I am also one to complain that television shows are about thirty percent advertising, and that networks today insist on advertising themselves over the closing credits (I like the theme music at the end of many shows, and sometimes do want to see something in the credits), and put those ghost images over the picture of the program down in the bottom right corner.  These things interfere with my enjoyment of the show.  But when advertising conveys something to me which I regard as information--such as the special discount price this week on a Burger King Whopper--I pay attention.

  And every week, a local publisher throws a poor excuse for a newspaper, financed solely by the advertising contained within, into my front yard, unrequested and without my permission; but if I fail to collect these and move them to the trash receptacle, the township will fine me for failing to clean up the litter they have sanctioned.

  It is exactly the same with electronic mail.  You read what you wish, and discard what does not interest you.  I have subscribed to several services which are clearly advertising, or for which advertising is a major part of what they do (and C-Net itself is probably among these).  I also value the mail I receive which informs me of the availability of products in which I might be interested which come from small companies trying to get started..  Having an AOL account I have shut off the e-mail filters specifically so that I can see what is sent, despite the high percentage of material which does not interest me.

  Now, here is the problem in e-mail.  The volume of electronic mail might clog your mailbox; and with the most popular mail management programs, accessing large quantities of e-mail takes a great deal of time.  Both Microsoft Outlook and Netscape Messenger make the same mistake--and none of the other services I've seen do so.

  When I access my mail in an AOL account, I am given a list stating the date on which the mail arrived, the e-mail address of the sender, and the subject line of the letter; it also tells me if there is an attachment.  That is all that has been downloaded to my computer at that point, and it has taken very little time.  If I choose to read a letter, the system will download only that letter to my computer for me to view--and does not save it to my hard drive as long as there is sufficient space in memory to contain it.  If I want to save it on my hard drive, I have to say so; otherwise, AOL will log it as read, and delete it a month later if I have not already done so.  On top of this, if there is an attachment on the letter, it is not downloaded to my system unless and until I say to do it.  I have noticed that the Internet mail systems--HotMail, MailCity, Yahoo, RocketMail, and others--have adopted this system:  you download the mail itself, or the attachments, when you choose to do so, and not when you sign on.  If you wish, you may delete one, several, or all of the items with a few clicks, never having downloaded them to your computer, based on who sent it and what it's about.  It is not that way with the two e-mail programs I've used for my POP accounts.  These programs will not show me what mail I have received until after all mail and all attachments have been downloaded to my hard drive.  (I still have to tell the system to "save" these things in another file if I want to look at them outside the mail program.)  I can understand why anyone who is receiving the amount of junk mail I get in my AOL accounts through one of the POP account organizers would be frustrated.  But the problem is that Microsoft and Netscape should design their programs so that you can see the basic information while the mail is still upline on your ISP, and provide the means to delete mail you've never downloaded to your system.  That would save you a tremendous amount of time in data you never had to receive.  The problem is not with spam.  It's with the software you use to deal with your mail.

  C-Net suggests that our ISP's may charge us a per-letter charge for sending mail.  Object.  Your ISP charges you for the privilege of transmitting data at the maximum baud rate which their modem can handle, for the time you are connected (whether you have full 24 hour access or limited access).  You cannot transmit faster than that; you probably cannot transmit that fast on a continuing basis.  After all, when you came to this page your modem and your ISP's modem were both very active downloading the contents of the page to your computer for you to view; but while you have been reading it, your modem has done nothing, unless you have some other internet software running (an instant messenger, mail program, or second browser).  It costs them no more than they expect for you to send or download mail.  Their added costs--if such exist--are based on the amount of memory storage space they have to provide to accommodate your incoming mail.  Sending mail is very modem-intense--transmitting many kilobytes per second--but downloading programs is generally more so.

  If the ISP is concerned that they do not have the storage space for the mail which you choose neither to delete nor to download today, they may create a policy to deal with that separately.  AOL automatically deletes mail which has been on the server for 30 days; most of the Internet-based boxes provide a stated limit on memory space which may not be exceeded, and mail will be refused once the box is full.  Either of these policies stated by the ISP will give the subscriber the incentive to delete mail--and the redesign of the popular mail programs to allow deleting mail after viewing only the subject and sender will make that more convenient.

  On top of this, if spammers know that you will delete their letters without ever downloading them unless you see something valuable in the headers, we may start to see subject lines which actually tell us something about the contents; and if disgruntled recipients stop attempting to injure the servers of the spammers, we might also get back to being able to see real sender addresses.  After all, don't you throw away unopened snail mail based solely on the fact that the return address and the comments on the envelope don't interest you?  And that requires you to carry it in from the mailbox, handle each piece individually, and physically carry the trash back out to the curb later.

  Besides, the law as proposed will not prevent the dangers which are threatened.  C-Net says that spammers are generally fringe marketers, but that things will get really out of hand if mainline marketers get into the act.  They specifically mention the phone companies; but I'm sure they would also include the credit card companies, banks, insurance companies, and major chain retailers.  The problem is, these companies already have an established business relationship with you, and so would not be prevented from spamming you by such a law.  And what would it take for me to prove such an established relationship with you?  If either of us sends a letter to the other complimenting a web page, does that do it--or does the other have to write back?  Did C-Net establish a relationship with you when you answered its survey?  If one of us posts something on a news group, and the other replies, do we have a relationship?  What if one of us posts something, and the other merely reads it?  The very fact that you are on the Internet means that you are connected to all of the rest of us.  We have some kind of relationship with you now.  We just have to figure out what it is, and prove it.  The established relationship clause gets you nothing.

  C-Net has nothing to lose by this law.  It slows those not already established from getting started, but does nothing against those who, like them, have massive mailing lists of individuals with whom they have an "established relationship".  I voted against it--but I do hope it passes, because if so I will immediately petition to have unwanted advertising removed from my television set, radio stations, mailbox, front lawn, roadsides, and everywhere else.  Advertising is part of our world, and will be found in every communications medium.  We have learned to ignore it everywhere else; we can ignore it here even more easily.

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