Mac Musings

Why We Need Anti-Spam Legislation

Daniel Knight - 2003.01.02

James Maguire writes, "...passing anti-spam legislation, while perhaps well intended, is like passing a law against rain." Or against speeding, smoking pot, or murder.

Maguire makes some good points in Fighting Spam: Legislation Won't Work, but his easy dismissal of anti-spam legislation is simply shortsighted.

One reason that spamming is so prevalent today is that it's completely legal in most jurisdictions. If spam were actually illegal, maybe 5%, 10%, or 20% of it would no longer be sent. Some people do obey laws - like the vast majority of smokers in California who no longer smoke in stores, offices, restaurants, and bars.

Passing laws against unsolicited commercial email may not stop all spam, but it's a step we need to take so we can begin to reduce the level of spam. Here are some ideas that legislators should consider.

Return Address

First, we should have a law that requires all email to have legitimate from: and reply-to: addresses. Yours, mine, and the spammers. Using IP addresses within email headers and connection logs from ISPs, it should be possible to easily find and prosecute those who deliberately use false email addresses.

Second, we should require that all commercial email also include the name, street address, phone, and fax numbers of the company sending them. If the sender has a toll-free phone number, the law should require that this be included as well.

Recipients of such spam should be allowed to sue at $10 per incident through an automated online system managed by the government.


Another helpful suggestion is that all spam be required to include ADV: (or something similar) at the beginning of the subject. This will help us identify unsolicited commercial email when it reaches our mailboxes.

Again, IP information and ISP connection logs will help track down those who send spam without the legally required prefix in the subject.

Remove Me

Every unsolicited piece of email sent out should further include instructions for being removed from the mailing list. This should include an automated unsubscribe by email option, an email contact to use should that fail, and a way to contact the company by phone, fax, or postal mail to request removal.

Stay Away

In the physical world, we can put up No Soliciting and No Trespassing signs. There is no equivalent on the Internet. Every nation should create some sort of national opt-out list - just like the phone company is already required to keep. This would be a one-way system so that nobody could read the database to extract a mailing list.

Spammers would be required to scrub their mailing lists against this database through some automated process - and this service should cost them based on the number of addresses checked. Spammers should also be required to check all addresses against the national opt-out lists every time they use the mailing list.

We've finally found a way to stop spam from being free, especially in conjunction with $10 per email received potential fines for failure to follow any of these laws.

Around the World

In the end, nations should set up reciprocal agreements for prosecuting spammers across international borders. It would soon become evident which nations oppose spam and which rogues harbor spammers. These would top the blacklists at most email providers.

What About Free Speech?

Individuals will still have the right to share their thoughts in a private email or post them on their personal Web space. Businesses will still have the right to contact their customers. Charities will still have the right to solicit donations from their supporters.

Fanatics are able to print and distribute leaflets, but they are also responsible for cleaning up their litter and obligated to obey No Soliciting warnings. We should ask no less of spammers.

What these laws would reduce or stop is the no cost abuse of the Internet and waste of our time. Unlike rain, sending spam is a human behavior which can and should be covered by law.