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Last Updated: Friday, 23 May, 2003, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Making the spammers pay
Screen grab of a Hotmail account
Global in-boxes are clogged with spam
A novel and drastic approach to punishing e-mail spammers has won the attention of internet analyst Bill Thompson

Lawrence Lessig is one of the good guys, at least in Internet terms.

A professor of Law at Stanford University, he has campaigned long and hard for a sensible approach to copyright.

He went to the Supreme Court to fight against the extension of US copyright term by twenty years, a move which lets Disney keep control of Mickey Mouse but severely shrinks the public domain (he lost, but it was a noble fight).

Penis enlargement?

Bill Thompson
Millions of people out there sending billions of messages - and lots of them seem to end up addressed to me.
Bill Thompson, spam-fatigued internet analyst
And we must not forget that he made his name advising the judge who wanted to break Microsoft's monopoly over the software we all use.

Like many people who use the net extensively - and I include myself - Lessig loathes spam.

Not only do unwanted messages offering hair regrowth, weight loss and easy money clog up our inboxes and eat up precious network resources, the rapidly growing number of pornographic spam messages are making many parents consider whether they should let their children even use e-mail.

Some of the latest work on spam filters using probability theory is incredibly effective, and it may mean that we can eventually get rid of most spam automatically.

But in the meantime there are millions of people out there sending billions of messages - and lots of them seem to end up addressed to me.

Paying the price

Angry man
Spam is making computer users increasingly angry
So what are we going to do about it?

Well, Lessig is a lawyer, and a creative one, so he has decided to use the law against the spammers.

On his website he has written a message to any spam 'robot' that visits the page.

A robot is a program that trawls through websites and bulletin board postings searching for email addresses to be added to a mailing list. Lessig's page says that he will happily accept and read any e-mail sent to a particular e-mail address, on condition that the sender pays him $500 and accepts that he can sue them in California if they don't pay up.

His argument is that the page sets up a contract between him and the spammer, so he can then start to collect.

The e-mail address is long and complicated and appears only on the page in question, so cannot have been legitimately added to any mailing list.

The point, of course, is to sue a spammer and deter the rest. Of course, there are some flaws in his argument, not least that a court is unlikely to accept that a page like this really establishes a legally binding contract.

Merry-go-round of spam

One of the comments on Lessig's site points out that 'you cannot say something like "by following this link to my website you agree to pay me $1000 plus the costs associated with transferring the contents to your computer" and expect people to be bound by such terms.'

Otherwise we'd all be doing it.

And of course, there is the perennial difficulty of finding who to sue.

What little research that has been done into the people behind spam indicates that a vast proportion of the 'offers' are simply fake, intended to get people to reply and give away their e-mail addresses so that they can be sold on as 'working' addresses to other spammers, in a vast merry-go-round of unwanted mail.

Lessig's scheme could work, however, if he is lucky enough to get an unwanted email from a large, respectable corporation or a well-known charity.

Fear of lawsuits

After deleting 342 unwanted e-mails this weekend, anything that limits the flow has to be a good thing
Bill Thompson
Here in the UK the online magazine Need to Know has highlighted cases where organisations have arranged online marketing campaigns using what they believe to be e-mail lists of customers who had opted-in, only to find their message being sent to large numbers of unwitting recipients.

It seems that some of the companies sending out the e-mails are being less than scrupulous about who they send stuff to, as both the RSPCA and BT Ignite have discovered to their cost.

In the United States, big corporations are remarkably sueable, and they are also very averse to the bad publicity that would come from spamming the country's most prominent online lawyer.

Just knowing that Lessig is out there might persuade them to be a bit more careful about how they use e-mail in marketing - and that is something we should all be grateful for.

After deleting 342 unwanted e-mails this weekend, anything that limits the flow has to be a good thing.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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