The Spamhaus Project


The Spam Definition and Legalization Game

by The Spamhaus TeamMay 14, 20035 minutes reading time

The word Spam means "Unsolicited Bulk Email". Unsolicited means that the Recipient has not granted verifiable permission for the message to be sent. Bulk means that the message is sent as part of a larger collection of messages, all having substantively identical content. But ask a spammer and he'll claim spam is something else.

The anti-spam community was caught off guard, not realizing that spammers were trying to redefine the word "Spam" in order to confuse law makers and legalize Unsolicited Bulk Email. Out-of-the-blue spammers began touting a new definition, redefining "spam" to mean "that which we do not send". Spams appeared claiming "this is not spam since we include a way to be removed" or "this is not spam since it is not a scam". The notoriously pro-spam Direct Marketing Association, whose president Robert Weintzen had stated "We see [Spam] as freedom of commercial speech", were quick to realize they could spin-doctor the word "Spam" to make it not apply to their members. Hence to everyone's surprise (or not), the DMA stated that "Spam" was "only porn and scams, sent fraudulently" and all normal spam was magically "not spam".

Few in the anti-spam and ISP communities saw the trick coming, since spam has always been Unsolicited Bulk Email and the spam issue is not about content, it's solely about delivery method. The content of spam is and has always been irrelevant, if it's sent Unsolicited and in Bulk it is spam plain and simple. All ISP contracts ban the sending of Unsolicited Bulk Email, the Webster's dictionary defines spam as Unsolicited Bulk Email, every anti-spam organization has always defined spam as Unsolicited Bulk Email (see link below to the Definition of "Spam")

When the United States Congress calls in the consultants to consult on new anti-spam laws, they don't call anti-spam organizations or email systems consultants, they call the DMA as the US government's 'authority' on the spam problem. Like drunk drivers consulting on drink-driving laws, the DMA happily tells Congress spam is "not spam" in order to get Congress to not ban but to actually legalize the sending of Unsolicited Bulk Email.

Hence the US Government has almost no chance of bringing in an anti-spam law this year (2003/2004), since Congress only listens to who lobbies with the most funds and the DMA always wins by many miles. There is now the strongest chance ever that Congress in its confused state will do exactly the opposite of banning spam.

What will happen now is that Congress will quite quickly bring in a law edited by the DMA. That law will allow spam (because the DMA are telling Congress that "spam is not spam") and will merely have sanctions against the sending of spam with fraudulent headers (sanctions which already exist in most state laws anyway). Congress will tout it as an anti-spam law but it will actually be a pro-spam law, finally legalizing the sending of Unsolicited Bulk Email, i.e: legalizing spamming. At that point, in effect a law will exist saying "You CAN spam, just don't use fake headers" and it will unleash the 23 Million small businesses in North America alone who suddenly will be allowed to spam backed by a law saying so. The spam problem will go from "terrible" to "meltdown of the email system" in the space of 14-18 months after that.

Congress will then be forced to rush in a new law to counter the disastrous effects of the first and properly ban spam, i.e: ban the sending of "Unsolicited Bulk Email". So we will eventually get the anti-spam law we want, but it looks very probable that we will have to let Congress make the mistake in order for Congress to learn from the mistake.

But there is an advantage to the anti-spam community in allowing Congress to go the DMA's route and that is that with a DMA-backed pro-spam law this whole spam problem will implode and self-terminate as the entire online population revolts not just against the law makers but against Direct Marketing itself. The staggering volumes of spam Internet users will be subjected to by the DMA's members (who will predictably claim in every spam that "This spam is not spam and the law says so"), volumes of junk many orders of magnitude worse than today's spam problem will turn the public against all Direct Marketing. The public will hold Direct Marketers responsible for the annihilation of email as a communications medium and that in itself might bring us a new dawn where Direct Marketing discovers ethics and stops treating the Internet as an infinite pool of suckers trained to press "delete" all day. The DMA is shooting itself in both feet, should we stop them?