Spam and Scams: Will Regulation Help?

When Stephen Kline was in the New York District Attorney's office not long ago on the Internet-abuses watch, it reached the point where he spent four days a week just handling media inquiries about online privacy-invasion spam and online scams.

Kline, now Assistant Attorney General of the Internet Bureau in the office of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, joked at MediaPost's third annual Forecast 2004 conference held yesterday in front of 250 people in New York, "Some of my colleagues, kidding me, asked if I was ever going to litigate again."

But that was a dramatic demonstration of just how prevalent the public's concern has rapidly become about the rising tide of email spam, pop-ups, pop-unders, and even the now often too-ubiquitous search ads.

As a conference panel on "Regulation" made abundantly clear, a growing cross-section of government regulators, law enforcement officers, online industry trade association executives, and direct-sales driven marketers are deeply worried that even as the Net's popularity continues to boom, the inherent privacy and getting-ripped-off concerns are mushrooming. What can be done?

Renard C. Francois, Washington-based attorney in the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission and a relentless crusader against Internet crimes (he was in New York the day before speaking before a DoubleClick conference on spamming), told the MediaPost gathering, "At this point, without supporting legislation, we cannot deal with the volume issue when it comes to spamming, "The main thing we can do currently is deal with fraud and deception. Beyond that, it's urgent that we get people to talk about spamming and related issues as often as possible."

That brings to mind industry associations. And they already are very active, and very hard-line, in opposition to anything that smacks of spam ("Remember Jack Valenti saving the movie industry," somebody in the audience said.)

Panelists Kevin Noonan, Executive Director of the Association for Interactive Marketing and Michael Mayor, Chair, the IAB Email Committee and President & COO of netcreations in New York, were joined at the hip in their vigorous opposition to anything that comes close to being spam.

Said Noonan and Mayor as one: "We consider any form of unsolicited email spam. Period."

With the California uprising against scam and the nationwide support for the "Do Not Call" movement looming over the online industry, panelists agreed that--for good business reasons alone--the online industry could ignore dealing with this clear and present danger only at its own peril.

Back to what can be done. Improved technology that could be put in the hands of Internet users is one ray of hope. Already, noted Kevin Noonan, his organization is finding that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Email Service Providers (ESPs) are introducing much more powerful technology to help filter out spam. And several members of the audience cited new spam-protection software available in the market.

Cloudmark was mentioned specifically by a member of the audience who said numerous friends have found greater protection after installing it.

What else? Well, obviously the more industry self regulation the better, keeping the movie industry and its ratings system in mind. And, as all panelists following the FTC's Renard Francois agree, any way that any forum or other means that can be used to educate the industry and consumers about the spam crisis the better.

Perhaps more effective than anything, in the end, may be consumers rising up angry and banding together, as was the case in the national "Do Not Call" campaign. A caution about becoming over-zealous in the overall effort against spam and other email barrages came from influential industry leader Dave Morgan, CEO of New York-based Tacoda Systems, Inc. "Amid these serious concerns," said Morgan, "we must remember to balance them with preserving the user's constitutional right to freedom of expression."

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