April 18, 2004

Confession of a criminal spammer

By: David Freddoso

When I write an article I like, I often e-mail its link to about 250 of my closest friends who are on what I call my “self-promotion list.” But after my research for this column, I am almost afraid to do so any more. Any one of the recipients could report me to the federal authorities for breaking the law.

I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it I might face a $10 fine per recipient per e-mail–there’s even a small possibility of jail time, although I think I’m safe from that–for using this method to attract readers to AFF’s Brainwash or Human Events Online.

My problem is that in November, Congress passed CAN-SPAM–the “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003” (a real stretch as acronyms go). The bill prohibits unsolicited commercial e-mails, and it appears that my e-mails fit the definition: I don’t explicitly bill them as advertisements or solicitations, I don’t provide “conspicuous notice” that recipients can request to unsubscribe from my list, and I don’t give out a valid, physical postal address. Add to that the fact that I’ve added some acquaintances to the list who did not specifically ask for it, and suddenly I’ve embraced a life of crime.

I only dabble in spamming, and it sounds silly that I would even have to worry about this. But for some people, it really matters, like my boss at Human Events. When he gets e-mails from readers of our print edition telling us how much they like our publication, he likes to reply and tell them to check out our website as well. But thanks to CAN-SPAM, he tells me, a team of lawyers has put an end to that practice. Apparently, unless our readers’ e-mails contain explicit requests for commercial solicitations, we cannot even send a link to the people who already enjoy our print edition enough to write us.

Or at least so the lawyers think. Even if the law is not meant to prevent such communications, it is still having that effect.

All About Caring

You may think that CAN-SPAM is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with unexpected effects on ordinary people–forbidding or at least throwing into question what should be perfectly legal behavior. But you would be wrong because CAN-SPAM is not well intentioned at all, unless self-promotion really is a virtue.

Lanny Davis framed the issue perfectly when asked in anticipation of Clinton’s January 19, 1999 State of the Union Address what the embattled President was going to say. “He’ll remind Americans that what they care about is that they have a president who cares about their issues and their problems.”

This is perhaps the stupidest and most insightful statement I’ve ever read: Americans care about having leaders who care about what they care about. In other words, Americans are sheep.

Sadly, we look increasingly to the government to solve all our problems, and there are always politicians willing to oblige us by overreaching their authority, passing dumber and dumber laws, and approving spending for worse and worse programs.

CAN-SPAM, like so many other laws, represents not an attempt to govern well, but an attempt to curry favor by governing poorly. The mandarins of our political system, some of whom literally grow fat from their life of privilege in Congress, know that they can always score points by seizing the populist mantle and enacting stupid new regulations designed to alleviate the annoyances of their constituents’ everyday lives. They write bills like CAN-SPAM not because they have a legitimate purpose, but for the sole purpose of appearing “sensitive.”

By the same logic Congress created and has infinitely expanded the Department of Education–it’s “for the children.” You don’t like paying for your healthcare, granny? We’ll make young people buy your drugs for you with the new Medicare bill. Tired of seeing negative campaign ads? We’ll pass a campaign finance bill that will prevent almost anyone from criticizing incumbents’ records.

Don’t like telemarketers? We’ll put them all out of work by creating the national Do-Not-Call Registry. This particularly odious measure, apparently created for those too lazy to take the phone off the hook during dinner, will definitely hurt the newspaper where I used to work in Brooklyn. It’s a small operation lacking the funds for a huge automated phone bank that could screen out Do-Not-Call numbers. The advertising salesmen there used to call companies right out of the yellow pages to solicit advertising. Now that sales strategy could land them in legal trouble.

There is no end to the damage Congress can do in the name of ending Americans’ small daily troubles, whether their pandering ways lead them to pass smoking bans, speech codes, or price controls.

I’m all for putting pornographers out of business, but the very people who get and complain about spam are usually guilty of bringing it on themselves. I have not received spam e-mail since I was in college and I foolishly put my e-mail address on my website. I’ve avoided repeating that mistake, and I don’t sign up for spam, so it’s never been a problem. That didn’t take a federal law, just a bit of common sense.

The Republican House leadership presented CAN-SPAM for a vote immediately after their lies, bribes, threats, and an unprecedented three-hour vote brought passage of the prescription drug entitlement in the early morning of November 23, 2003. In that context, it’s not surprising that CAN-SPAM passed without so much as a whimper in opposition, with just one Republican (Ron Paul) and four Democrats voting against a nearly unanimous bill.

But there has to be a better way of dealing with minor problems than to go to Congress every time we find something annoying, like say, loud babies or people who talk in theaters. (I’m sure some creative Hill staffer could justify the acronym “SHUT UP Act of 2004”.) The populist urge to over-legislate erodes our constitutional system and opens the way to even more intrusive legislation that destroys our freedom and increases our tax burden.

I don’t care what anyone thinks–our elected officials are not there to care about what we care about.

David Freddoso, Assistant Editor for Human Events, writes for Brainwash.

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