What's wrong with spam prosecutions

by Preston Gralla

Spam these days is more than an annoyance – it increasingly carries malware payloads that can do serious damage to your PC, steal your identity, or turn your PC into a zombie that carries out denial of service attacks.

So anything that law enforcement can do to fight spam should be a good thing, right? Well, not quite, as I'll explain.

Federal and state agencies have launched "Operation Slam Spam," in which dozens of spammers, identity theft artists, and scammers have been arrested or will be prosecuted for doing the kind of slimy stuff that has become an online epidemic. Good thing, you might say. And I agree, at least partially.

Here's the catch: Much of the money for the effort was paid for by a private business, and not just any private business, but by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), an industry lobbying group whose members blanket your real-world mailbox with junk mail, and which has fought against stronger anti-spam laws.

So what's wrong with that?

First off, prosecutions shouldn't be bought and sold on the open market.

Then there's the problem with the DMA itself. The reason it funded Operation Slam Spam is crystal clear: It hopes that a big-publicity prosecution will convince people that the laws on the books against spam are working, and all that's needed is to use the law to go after the bad guys. If it can convince people of that, it will consider its money well spent.

The truth is, though, that the federal Can Spam Act has failed. Spam has been getting worse, not better, since the law went on the books. The law is rarely adhered to. And because the law supercedes state laws, some of which were far tougher, it has helped keep spammers in business.

So when the prosecution makes its big splash, turn a cold eye on it, and to understand why it's happening, remember the advice of Woodward and Bernstein when they cracked the Watergate scandal: "Follow the money."

What do you think about spam prosecutions? Let me know.


2004-08-25 14:20:56
Vote with your wallet
I think that imposing fines upon spammers is a part of the solution, but the greatest defense against spam is to starve the spammer. They are in business because they find it profitable. As long as there are people who respond to spammers by spending, it will continue. The strongest vote against spam consists of refusing to purchase anything that is advertised in that manner. I consider pop-up windows to be spam as well, and I make it a point not to purchase from those who use that form of advertising on other sites than their own. Pop-unders are the worst. Now that I've switched from IE to Opera, I see little of any of this, but I well remember eBay pop-ups that open another one when you close the original, and Geocities pop-unders from "Lower My Bills".
2004-08-25 23:57:50
doesn't matter
everyone knows CANSPAM has failed miserably.
If the DMA wants to clean up their image by open disassociating themselves from spammers (while sometimes direct marketeers can be annoying the DMA does have rules to follow for them like they must on request stop calling you and you can complain to them, spammers don't follow any rules) and decides to help track down the criminals that's fine with me.

The fact that an operation like this is needed only shows the ultimate failure of CANSPAM even clearer. Had CANSPAM worked spammers would have stopped their illegal practices (yeah right) and/or local law enforcement would have been active on tracking them down and prosecuting them.

What's starting to have effect against organised crime here in the Netherlands is the so-called "pluck them" approach where the total revenue of a criminal enterprise can be confiscated by the state.
So if you scam people out of a few million you're not just facing a few months probation but you're out of the money as well (plus whatever equipment you used for the heist).
Hurts them where it hurts, in their pockets.