Why aren't we fighting spam
in traditional media?

Many of us are hot and bothered about all the junk email we receive.  In many cases, the majority of all the stuff coming into our mailboxes is spam, which we delete after scanning the first line or two -- assuming we haven't managed to filter it out before we even see it.  A smaller number of us are bothered by, and fighting the good fight against, the deluge of spam in public newsgroups.  But there are other kinds of spam that are also disruptive and costly, which we all seem to ignore, apparently just because we're used to it.  I'm talking about the spam you receive in non-internet media.

The justifications for aggressively combating spam in email and on Usenet are well known.  First of all, it is highly annoying.  Anybody who gets this stuff they don't want is generally irritated by it.  We do not do ourselves as a society any favors by randomly increasing everybody's level of irritation with the day's events.  Secondly, much of it contains material unsuitable for children, and children are among those bombarded with it.  (This state of affairs is particularly grotesque among AOL subscribers, who are probably subjected to more unwanted adult spam than anyone, and yet who are themselves outlawed from using even remotely adult terminology.)  Thirdly, a swarm of spam can cause you to miss real messages, or give up on trying to read them.  I have seen Usenet groups die out completely, abandoned by all participants, simply because the spam drowned out the discussion.  They would be left with nothing but tons of spam talking to other spam, until finally someone noticed there were never any people there any more and pulled the plug.  (Some estimate that at least a third of all Usenet traffic is spam.)  Fourthly, the sheer volume of spam messages is so great that it significantly drives up the total costs of operating the internet, at a time when all the network providers and phone companies are scrambling just to keep up with the constant increases in demand.  (The three month delays you're experiencing as you wait for your DSL line are in part caused by, among many other factors, the volume of spam.)  Which leads to the final and most important point: you are paying to receive it.  The cost of transmitting spam to internet users is borne primarily by the reader, not by the sender!  It raises your bills, not the spammers'!  The cost for the average internet user is estimated to be about two dollars a month added to your ISP bill.

You may wonder how a person can send out tons of email spam without paying for it.  How this can be done with Usenet articles is obvious enough, you may say, but how can this be true of email?  The answer is that much of the spam you get is sent illegally.  Don't be fooled by those disclaimers and statements of compliance that the spam messages include: most of them are lies, just like the fake statements claiming that you asked to receive the mail.  The increasingly criminal nature of the spamming business is reflected in the trend of more and more of the advertised products and services being in legally questionable areas, or being sold fraudulently.  In the old days there were rogue ISPs who made it their business to sell the service of generating spam for paying customers.  They had to pay for some of the net costs they incurred.  But nowadays renegade spammers operate by signing up for temporary "throwaway" accounts on ISPs that specifically forbid the transmission of spam.  (Almost all do, since those that don't are now likely to find themselves cut off from much of the internet if they emit spam regularly.)  As soon as the connection is operational, they spew a ton of email through it.  The system operators probably shut off the account within a few hours, and then the spammers move on.  Since many ISPs offer free accounts or free trials, the spammer might not have to pay a cent.  Until more ISPs implement methods of fining people who abuse free or trial accounts, or uniformly throttle such accounts so that only small volumes of spam can come out of them, this will continue to be the case.

Spam is such a problem that many networking professionals now spend large amounts of time and money trying to stop as much of it as they can.  The stuff is so expensive that this effort actually pays for itself.  Even ISPs of moderate size may have two or more employees working on spam abatement full time.  Indeed, the problem does seem to be becoming gradually a little less severe.  The passage of laws similar to junk fax laws has helped, and some of the worst spammers have ended up in court.

We all cheer those who fight the good battle to restore the internet to the uses that we're paying for.  Yet at the same time, most of us are bombarded with other kinds of spam which we simply resign ourselves to and do nothing to fight!  Spam that comes to us not over the internet, but over traditional communications systems.

Junk mail to your postal address, and telemarketing calls on your phone.

All of the reasons above why spammers' deluging your email box or public newsgroups are violating your rights, are also true of junk mail and junk phone calls.  (Except that those media are mercifully free of adults-only advertising as a rule, this having been illegal for decades.)  They are annoying and disruptive.  They cause people to become unavailable for real phone calls, and possibly to miss letters and postcards, since it is so habitual to throw away most of the mail we get.  They drive up the costs of maintaining the networks that transmit them.  In the case of the post office, junk mail is probably the majority of their business; they would need far fewer employees without it.  The current swamped state of the phone network is severe enough that adding disruptive unwanted calls to it is clearly harmful.  And you pay at least part of the costs.  This may not seem to be the case with paper mail, but before he turned to presidential politics, Ralph Nader examined the postal service and made a strong case that they are overcharging us in order to subsidize a price break for junk mailers.  In the case of the telephone, you pay a flat rate for the right to receive calls, but the price charged for that is affected by the junk calls you get.  In the case of paper mail, there is an added element not present with the others: the generation of a huge stream of physical waste matter that has to be recycled or otherwise disposed of.  The large amount of plastic and adhesive that gets mixed into the paper makes recycling difficult.

The annoyance factor of telemarketing phone calls has recently taken an upswing.  They have developed a system that saves them money, which works like this: a machine rings about six phones at a time, and the first one that answers gets connected to a live operator.  This means that for every telemarketing phone call you get, you get more which just ring and then hang up, which might be considered even more uselessly disruptive.  This also is the reason why, when you answer, you don't hear anything at first, and then you get a person who seems initially disoriented, and apparently didn't hear your initial hello.  All of this escalates the costs inflicted on the rest of society by the telemarketers.  But at least it also brings one silver lining: if you get a call with that blank period followed by disorientation, you can know right then that it's something you can probably feel free to hang up on immediately, or just say "Place me on your do-not-call list" as soon as you hear a voice.  For greater accountability, one may prefer to wait until they identify their organization, which they ought to do in the first sentence or so.

Given that there are reasons to consider junk mail and junk phone calls as abuses that we have a right to restrain, what kind of standards ought we to have to decide what is acceptable and what is not?  Due to the attention given to email spam in recent years, a set of reasonable standards has emerged for email.  Leaving aside such issues as the hijacking of third parties' network equipment, which are generally not applicable to older media, the standards that have arrived at can be pretty simply stated.  The basic rule arrived at is: sending unsolicited bulk email to someone not in prior communication with you, without their consent, is unacceptable.  Period.  And consent must be defined as meaning that the person actively said "yes", not that they failed to say "no"!  Cases where bulk email is permissible are: when a person "opts in" to receiving it (as opposed to failing to "opt out"), or when a prior connection has been established.  Examples of a prior connection might be that the person is a previous customer of whatever you sell, a previous donor to your worthy cause, or has requested information from you about some related topic.  The other basic rule, of course, is that any request to cease further mailings must be honored.

All of these forms of non-internet spam are legally required, now, to give you a chance to opt out.  Instructions such as "Remove me from your mailing list", "Place me on your do-not-call list", and so on, are legally binding.  They are, as many of us have found out, often ignored anyway.  Telemarketers often like to try to buffalo people asking not to be called, by misleading them about what steps they have to take to be put on the do-not-call list.  Even if you follow these steps, they sometimes are too incompetently organized to manage to avoid calling those on the list.  This is, of course, very similar to the common practice in email spamming of providing a "remove" address that does not function... which is an improvement, I'd say, over the previously common practice of using "remove" replies just to verify that they are reaching a live person, who is then sent even more spam.

When new media are bombarded with unwanted junk, we get incensed and pass laws about it.  The advent of widespread fax machines was followed shortly by junk-fax laws, and there are now junk email laws too.  (Those laws are very watered down, but they are still strong enough that much of the spam mail you receive is in violation of it.)  But the laws for mail and telephone abuse are much more lenient, designed much more for the convenience of the advertiser instead of the customer.  We accept this not because it is any less abusive but because we grew up with it and are used to it.

I suggest that we should insist on similar standards for telemarketing and paper junk mail: consider it a violation if the recipient has not actively opted to receive the mailings or calls.  And putting a phone number field into a form that the customer has to fill out to get something else does not qualify as opting in!  (Telling customers that a phone number is "required" for services unrelated to telephones is another practice we need to resist.)

But given the willingness of mass marketers to flout the law when they can get away with it, how can we realistically gain any control over the practices?  Lessons from the fight against email spam are useful here.  The progress that has been made against spam on the internet has largely come about because of active engagement by internet providers in fighting it.  A broad consensus exists in the world of ISPs and network providers that spam needs to be stopped whenever it can be caught.  Measures taken against it include discarding the output of sites known to repeatedly excrete spam over the long term (this is known as the "Internet Death Penalty" and is reserved for extreme cases), throttling consumer email accounts to be able to emit only a smallish number of emails per hour, maintaining a constantly-updated list of systems emitting spam right now, forbidding the use of mail servers to send mail from third party connections, and so on.  Only the fact that there are so many separate players in the game, with varying degrees of engagement in the spam issue, reduces the effectiveness of these strategies.  If it were not for the cooperation of these system and network administrators, little or nothing could be done.

Similarly, I believe that we will not be able to do much to change the practices of junk mailers and telemarketers without some cooperation from the telephone companies and the postal service.  The post office is the simplest case: Congress can legislate whatever rules we want it to.  The telephone companies may take more persuading.

I think there is one concept that bridges all these cases, and makes the difference between a manageable problem and an out-of-control one.  That is accountability.  In every case, the reason we have so much unwanted crap in our communication stream is because the perpetrators of it have some means of escaping accountability.  Internet spam usually takes advantage of informational disguises and devious transmission routes to make it difficult for the recipient to know where it came from, or who to complain to about it.  Telemarketing calls don't give the recipient any way to know who they came from -- at least with my phone company -- unless you listen to the sales pitch and note down all the contact information.  And junk paper mail is recognized by the law as proper and legitimate, and the process of opting out of mailings is unclear and inconvenient, and so is the process of following up complaints about abuses.

Here is the sort of cooperation I would like to see from the phone companies and the post office to fight the spam they bring us.  First, the phone company needs to provide some method to log the last call you got as an unwanted harrassment.  My phone company does not currently have a way to do this.  When I was getting a whole series of calls from somebody's fax machine, I found I had no method of getting a message to them that they had the wrong number.  I called the phone company, and they said that they could start up a special monitoring of my line to catch the unwanted caller... but it would not take effect for about two days, and would last only one day once begun, and I would have to personally record the dates and times of each call fitting the description.  Naturally, this failed to catch the caller, because it couldn't be gotten together at the time the problem was occurring.  I still get some fax calls.  (In this it was much like trying to get the phone company to fix noise in my phone line that usually appeared during wet weather: they could only respond to the complaint after a delay of at least two days, and so never managed to catch the problem while it was happening.)  What we need is a special number we can dial which automatically logs the last call received on this line to a complaint list, perhaps along with a brief verbal description of the nature of the complaint.  If the same company (or individual) gets a series of complaints logged, they could be penalized.  Whether the complainer has a right to know the identity of the caller is a question I don't feel qualified to resolve, so I am not sure how to tie this to better enforcement of the callee's right to refuse further calls.

For paper mail, there are two changes that I feel are necessary.  One is to simplify and clarify the process of opting out of future mailings.  The other is to bill the mailer for the entire cost of the mailing.  I don't mean just the cost of delivering it to the recipient, but also the cost of getting rid of it after the recipient doesn't want it.  I think the most direct and certain way of managing this is to charge the mailer for carrying the stuff in both directions.  We do not want to encourage a system wherein the consumer is throwing a lot of unwanted mail into the garbage.  This is, in effect, using the consumer's time and effort, against her or his will, to subsidize a cost created by the mailer.  It also absolves a major producer of waste matter from any of the cost of cleaning it up.  What we want to encourage on our side, is to have as many people as possible respond to unwanted junk mail not by throwing it in the trash, but by sending it back to the mailer.  Spread the word that this is the proper and appropriate way to dispose of junk mail.  Let the cost and inconvenience of recycling or disposal be truly imposed on the mailer as much as possible.  If it becomes at all typical for mailees to send junk mail back where it came from, it will be entirely justifiable for the postal service to charge for a presumed delivery in both directions, or equivalently, to charge the mailer for having unwanted mail disposed of by postal service employees, which might cost about the same amount.

Some may object that carrying mail both directions will increase the ecological cost instead of reducing it.  But that's only true if the senders keep putting out just as much junk mail even though it is now costing them at least twice as much.  The reason for sending it back is to provide a clear and obvious reason for them to reduce the amount they send out.

Under current rules, if you write "REFUSED - RETURN TO SENDER" on the mail, the post office has to take it back -- but only if the mail is marked either "address correction requested" or "return postage guaranteed".  If these are absent, the post office won't send it back.  (I presume they throw it away.)

The first thing we need to do is to pass a change of rules so that any and all junk mail can be returned to the sender, whether it has one of these markings or not.  The next thing I would suggest as a legal requirement is that any piece of presorted bulk mail which is sent to unsolicited recipients, be marked on its exterior with a clearly legible pair of checkboxes, one labeled "Refused - Return to Sender" and the other labeled "Send no further mailings to this address".  Any piece of presorted bulk mail which is not unsolicited -- that is, which is sent to someone who has had prior business with the sender -- must include in its contents a clear and simple means of opting out of further mailings.  (Mail that someone has actually requested or paid for, such as a magazine subscription, would be a third category.)  The requirement would be that when someone marks the "Refused" checkbox and leaves the mail in their box, it would be delivered back to the sender at the sender's expense, where they would have to pay someone to deal with it, and if the addressee marks the second checkbox the sender would be liable to penalties if they sent more junk mail.

Even if we do not adopt such a system of simplified opting out, it might do some good if as many as possible of us got rubber stamps saying "REFUSED - RETURN TO SENDER" and started using them on our junk mail.  Even in cases where it does not get carried back to the sender, it would get the post office's attention and make them aware that the junk mail is costing them more money than they expected.  They would then be motivated to raise the price of delivering it.

The process of opting out of junk mail, though presently cumbersome, is worth using.  See The Junk Mail Reduction Kit for information on how to reduce the junk mail you receive, under the present system.

UPDATE:  You may wonder how laws against spam get watered down.  What politician in the world would come out in public as being pro-spam?  Nobody would vote for a pro-spam politician.  Yet it happens.  A recent egregious example is Gray Davis, the current governor of California.  After working for months to look like a big hero in dealing with the electricity crisis, fighting for the people against the evil special interests, Davis has shown that he's as big a friend of special interests' profits as any other politician is.  In particular, the profits of spammers, telemarketers, and junk mailers.  From the San Francisco Chronicle:
Davis bids to weaken consumer privacy bill
Governor bows to business lobby
by Robert Salladay (Chronicle Sacramento Bureau)

Sacramento - Gov. Gray Davis sought yesterday to weaken a consumer measure that would prevent financial information from being sold to telemarketers or traded among corporations, accepting key concessions sought by business lobbyists.

Davis' proposed changes would lower the fines for breaking the law, eliminate the ability to sue a bank or insurance company that illegally traded private information, and allow addresses and phone numbers to be sold to telemarketing firms without getting a consumer's permission....

"This document is full of exemptions and exceptions that were never even discussed in my conversations with the governor, " [the bill's author, State Sen. Jackie] Speier said yesterday.  "It's a privacy plan that is spinning out of control and a blank check for the business community...."

In other words, they want to take out the parts of the bill (SB773) that actually acknowledge your personal rights.  The full article is here.

The article states that the governor more or less has Speier over a barrel, in that he can veto the whole thing, and/or make her look like an uncooperative prima donna, if his amendments aren't accepted.  This is not true, of course, once a media stink is raised.  Davis would never get away with this if it were done in the full light of publicity.  So Speier is doing the right thing by making noise.  I suggest you make some yourself.

LATER UPDATE:  For Congress to pass the "do-not-call list" law was a great piece of progress.  Hopefully this will encourage them to find some backbone for dealing with other types of spam, including email spam, which they have repeatedly tried to address and repeatedly refused to take effective action on.