The Magazine

You've Got Spam

From the June 16, 2003 issue: The inundation of unsolicited e-mail advertising, and what to do about it.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Under such circumstances, draconian steps are in order. Of the measures being discussed in Congress, the most sensible--sensible because it is what the spam problem will inevitably lead the public to demand within a year or two--is that of Democratic senator Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer wants a federal no-spam list like the no-call telemarketing list the FTC will have up-and-running by this summer. This is "opt-out" with a vengeance--consumers will be able to opt out of the unsolicited commercial e-mail cesspool altogether. Questions have been raised about the measure's feasibility. One enforcement question--how to identify the source of e-mails, which are harder to trace than telephone calls--will have to be addressed technologically, perhaps by the computer industry. But most of the quibbles about a do-not-spam list have the phony-baloney quality that is the hallmark of arguments traditionally made against Internet taxation. First comes feigned helplessness. Behind a lot of cant about the "ethereal" nature of human relations in the telecommunications age, the solution is deemed technologically unworkable. Then when taxation, or spam-blocking, as the case may be, is shown to be quite feasible, the argument is advanced that enacting it would "undermine the free-for-all spirit of the Internet."

But this libertarian argument, particularly when mustered on behalf of spam, is the most phony-baloney argument of all. If we could only "unleash" this and "untrammel" that, politicians used to argue in the 1990s, we'd get higher profits and more freedom. So, by bipartisan consensus, a no-tax, low-regulation regime was devised for the Internet. It was market Rousseauianism, and for several years, the Internet economy has allowed us to conduct a long experiment on how the noble savage comports himself in cyberspace. Libertarianism has proved an attractive creed for the Internet generation in its lifestyle variant of live-and-let-live. But as a market system it has proved a flop.

The Internet economy, as spam shows, turns out to be like a garden: Leave it alone and you will not get (as you might assume in theory) a profusion of wild and interesting growth. No--you'll get the entire space choked off by the most noxious and aggressive weed. And spam has reached the point where it calls for a mighty pesticide. An entire range of federal regulations is going to be necessary if the Internet is to be kept usable; and enacting such regulations responsibly will take legislative prudence and care. A do-not-spam list is a first imperative. But it is also a social necessity that the principle of taxing the Internet be established soon. This will mean retiring the (in retrospect) absurdly named Internet Tax Freedom Act of 1998, which placed a moratorium on certain Internet taxes, and was extended in 2001 until November of this year.

It was always unfair not to tax business on the Internet, of course. There is no reason that should enjoy a pricing advantage (a de facto government subsidy) over a corner bookstore. But the most damaging part of the moratorium turns out to have been the most innocent-looking: that it banned charges for Internet access. Something like e-mail "postage" will be required if we are going to change the economic incentives that have invited pornographers, snake-oil salesmen, and other social predators into Americans' living rooms, in some cases hundreds of times a week. There are reasonable ways such postage can be collected. A penny-per-e-mail charge would drive most spammers out of business, subject them to jail time for tax evasion if they hid their operations, and cost the average three-letter-a-day Internet user just ten bucks a year. If even that seems too hard on the small user, then an exemption could be made for up to 5,000 e-mails per annum. If the postage were decried as a tax hike, then it could be used to fund one-to-one tax cuts in other areas--like sales taxes for the brick-and-mortar retail stores that have labored under such an unfair tax disadvantage for the past half decade.

Such programs can be argued over and adjusted in the coming months. But there is no chance that the Internet will return to its old level of user-friendliness until lawmakers recognize that the decision to leave it unregulated was a serious, ideologically driven mistake.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.