Who Are The White Knights In The War On Spam?

I know this appallingly cynical of me, but I can’t help worrying about the most recent development in the War On Spam. That, in case you hadn’t heard, is the news of a ‘fighting cooperative’ as Jupiter Research’s Microsoft Monitor puts it, between Microsoft and New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who have together filed lawsuits against alleged spammers Synergy6 and Scott Richter, among others. Spitzer was one of the key players in the government’s five-year antitrust case against Microsoft.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s good that someone’s going after spammers. And they may well have the right guys. Spamhaus has Richter high up on its list of top spammers, and Spitzer described him as the third largest spammer in the world, delivering 250 million spam e-mails per day. And having Microsoft onside definitely has its rewards: As part of a six-month investigation, Microsoft set up honey traps, capturing 8,000 spam mails in one month containing, according to Spitzer, “40,000 false statements.” New York State will seek $500 in damages for each false statement. Microsoft’s lawsuits, filed in Washington State, seek more than $18 million in damages.

But while Jupiter and others focus on the positive aspects of Microsoft’s improving relations with the government, what exactly is Micosoft doing sueing spammers? While they have the technical muscle to help catch the spammer, (and this is not the first time they’ve gone after spammers in the courts, as TechDirt points out), my suspicion is that spammers are being pursued not because they’re a nuisance to us users, but because they’re getting in the way of making the web a marketers’ dream playground.

Spam is hell for the inbox and is giving a bad name to all forms of e-marketing. That’s bad for us, but more importantly it’s bad for big business, as Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith explains: “Deceptive and illegal spam, like the kind we’re attacking today, is overwhelming legitimate e-mail and threatening the promise and potential of the Internet for all of us. We appreciate the attorney general’s leadership on what is arguably the biggest technology menace consumers are facing. Together we are stepping up efforts to help consumers take control of their inboxes again.”

Indeed, it’s telling that Microsoft has, according to the anti-spamming community, been instrumental in watering down anti-spamming legislation which might have done a more thorough job of stopping junk mail. Of course, I’m not defending spam. It’s ugly, and getting worse. And Microsoft are improving their spam filtering: Outlook 2003 has it, and they just upgraded it again yesterday.

But in helping get rid of it we may unwittingly be committing ourselves to a regimented future online, of standards — IDs, Digital Rights Management, microtolls — controlled by the big corporates. Or at the very least, leave the ground free for spam from the mainstream — mainsleaze spam, as California State Senator Debra Bowen put it: “Microsoft doesn’t want to ban spam, it wants to decide what’s ‘legitimate’ or ‘acceptable’ unsolicited commercial advertising so it can turn around and license those e-mail messages and charge those advertisers a fee to wheel their spam into your e-mail inbox without your permission.”

19. December 2003 by jeremy
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