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Label all e-mail advertising


Ping! You've got mail. Looks like a greeting card - but it isn't. This attack e-mail opens directly to a pornography site and then triggers a barrage of similar e-cards to everyone on your computer's address list.

The fake message, known as a Trojan horse scam because it's not what it seems, crossed the line even for the Direct Marketing Association, which represents mass marketers and is usually quick to defend the rights of all e-mailers. Spurred by the pornographic greeting card, the marketers decided to support new laws that attempt to eliminate such deceptive e-mail.

Problem is, pornographic e-mailers are only a small part of the much larger problem of spam: the unsolicited bulk e-mail that increasingly clogs computer systems and irritates users. People need a simple way to identify this junk e-mail. But the industry is fighting the most sensible fix: a national law requiring all marketers to begin each message with ADV - for "advertising".

Under that system, consumers would be free to read pitches about vitamins, weight-loss programs and mortgage-refinancing deals. Or they could simply identify and delete ADV e-mails unread.

Marketers claim the ADV requirement would be ineffective because spammers would refuse to comply with the law. The marketing group also worries that the ADV label would lump legitimate e-mailers with the likes of those who are peddling pornographic material.

The marketers' association is right to raise the question of effectiveness. No single solution will solve the spam problem, including an ADV law. Fighting spam also requires stronger software for filtering e-mail sent to Internet providers.

But a national ADV requirement would be a helpful step toward requiring all commercial e-mailers to identify themselves. Far from smearing legitimate e-mail, the ADV system would make the messages stand out as something worth reading. Responsible e-mailers face a greater threat under the current system, in which consumers are unable to distinguish their messages from those sent by unscrupulous spammers.

Already, several states have passed ADV laws, with California leading the way in 1998. But the results have been disappointing because spammers know the laws can't be enforced across state lines. That problem would be partially solved with a national ADV law.

Currently, nearly 40% of all e-mail is spam, a number that has doubled just since the start of this year. At that rapid rate of growth, spam threatens to overwhelm the Internet. It also could discourage consumers from using their e-mail.

Confronting the problem of spam requires as an initial step a reasonable method that lets consumers quickly and easily identify the e-mail that interests them - and the e-mail they don't want to read.

Any solution falling short of that goal is nothing but a Trojan horse.

 

unknown, USA Today. November 10, 2002

Copyright © 2002 USA Today. All rights reserved.