Sunday, March 14, 2004
Fight over spam hits home
Parents, lawmakers champion restrictions on unsolicited e-mail to protect children
By Joel Kurth / The Detroit News
Ron Amen is practically still slack-jawed. Eager to protect his grandchildren from Internet pedophiles, he instead got a gander at the unsolicited smut clogging their e-mail inboxes.
Amen was installing filtering software for his grandchildren, 11 and 13, when he learned billions of unsolicited commercial e-mail messages ' known as spam ' sent daily on the Internet don't discriminate between young and old users.
'When I saw what was coming, I was shocked,' said Amen, 58, of Livonia. 'The fear of them getting into a chat room with a child molester was dimmed by the view of all that garbage coming at them.'
Similar concerns have the Michigan Senate considering the creation of a 'child protection registry,' or state-run list to let parents declare their kids' e-mail addresses off-limits to pitches for porn, gambling, drugs or other vices illegal to minors but ubiquitous on the Internet.
The legislation remains in committee and has attracted questions about its enforceability, but it's yet another sign the battle over spam is moving from corporate boardrooms to family living rooms.
Anthony Starks, 17, of Sterling Heights spends roughly eight hours a week online and said he has been receiving unwanted e-mail for years. When he was younger and would come across spam with pornographic material on it, he would head straight to his mother.
But since mothers aren't always around, he said, 'We should have some sort of block.'
Until recently, unsolicited bulk e-mail was viewed as a productivity problem that cost businesses $10 billion to $87 billion a year.
Increasingly, parents and lawmakers are focusing on the often nasty content of the messages: Porn accounts for 14 percent of the 30 billion e-mails sent on the Internet daily, according to Brightmail, a San Francisco software company that sells anti-spam products to businesses.
'This is the most insulting invasion of privacy,' said state Sen. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, who is sponsoring the bill. 'Parents are in their final moments of sanity right now, and there are few tools to help them.'
Similar concerns prompted Utah this month to become the first state to adopt a child registry, while lawmakers in Illinois and South Carolina may soon follow suit.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is proposing a wider do-not-spam list to allow computer users ' underage or not ' to opt out of spam.
Congress could consider the list this summer, but Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris last week said he doubted one could work.
Still, the proposals come amid growing concern that current laws against bulk e-mail don't work.
Michigan is one of 32 states that have passed anti-spam laws, but most are tough to enforce because they place the burden or proof on recipients rather than senders of spam, said Matthew Prince, co-founder of Unspam, a Chicago company advising Utah and Michigan on the registries.
On many occasions, 17-year-old Lawanda Smith of Canton has become frustrated enough to e-mail some of the companies sending her spam, asking to be taken off their mailing lists. Her efforts have met with varying degrees of success.
She would welcome a system that prevents the messages from getting to her in the first place.
'If I ask for someone to send me something,' she said, 'that's a different story. But if I don't ask for it ... they need to take that somewhere else.'
The federal CAN-SPAM Act signed into law in December has resulted in a handful of lawsuits against spammers, and more debate about its effectiveness.
The amount of spam since the act ' which requires clear labeling of solicitations ' has increased from 58 percent to 60 percent e-mail on the Internet, according to Brightmail.
'The real problem with spam is it's attacking children with messages that are completely inappropriate,' Prince said.
'Until we get out of the mind-set that this is a business problem that can be solved with money and spam filters, law enforcement isn't going to take this seriously.'
Prince acknowledged he has a financial interest in creating a registry. His company would bid on contracts to create databases for the lists ' a deal potentially worth millions.
Unlike current laws that require users to prove they never signed up for services that would send spam, the lists would only require prosecutors to prove that inappropriate e-mails reached children, Prince said.
The misdemeanor would be punishable by fines of up to $5,000 and six months in prison. Parents would also be able to sue spammers themselves.
Beth Schuele isn't convinced. She worries about the online messages her two teen-agers receive, but isn't about to turn over information about them to the government.
'Spam's a huge pain, but I don't know if this is the solution,' said the Troy mother. 'I'm reluctant to put my children's e-mails where other people could find them. It's like giving them a loaded gun and saying, 'Hey, here's my kid!' '
Bishop said he considers the children's registry a first step toward broader do-not-spam lists. He proposed a blanket ban last year, but it went nowhere.
'We need to get a law on the book that's functional,' Bishop said. 'The Alan Ralskys of the world have become so arrogant, they're not worried about getting caught.'
He's referring to Alan Ralsky, the West Bloomfield bulk e-mailer who has been identified by the British Internet outfit Spamhaus as the world's most prolific spammer.
Ralsky said his company, Creative Marketing Zone, sends 100 million e-mails daily for everything from porn and Botox cream to mortgages. His company also sells pop-up Internet ads and data on his customers to banks and other companies.
A former insurance salesman, Ralsky said he's significantly changed his business to comply with federal law and isn't worried about a child registry.
'To me, it's a moot point,' said Ralsky, 58. 'Who wants to sell to a 14-year-old kid or a 6-year-old kid, anyway? They don't have any money.'
He paid an undisclosed sum in 2002 to settle a federal lawsuit from Verizon, which claimed he paralyzed its networks with millions of unsolicited e-mails.
Ralsky accused Internet Service Providers of fueling anti-spam fervor to make users more amenable to paying for every e-mail they send.
'Show me the person who still gets 30 e-mails a day, I'll kiss their (posterior),' Ralsky said. 'Everyone thinks CAN-SPAM is a joke. We don't treat it as a joke. We take it real seriously.'
Detroit News Staff Writer Jim Lynch contributed to this report. You can reach Joel Kurth at (313) 222-2610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO) collates information and evidence on entities with a history of spamming or providing spam services, and entities affiliated or otherwise connected with them, for the purpose of assisting ISP Abuse Desks and Law Enforcement Agencies.