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Ken Magill

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Why the Focus on Commercial Spam is Trivial

By Ken Magill

A horrific story surfaced recently that serves to illustrate just how trivial some anti-spammers’ focus on commercial email truly is.

Joseph Menn, a reporter for the Financial Times, posted a piece on Boing Boing recently updating his book Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet.

In the post, he brought to a close—of sorts—the story of an Internet security researcher whose daughter he reported was kidnapped by a Russian Internet-crime gang.

According to Menn, the gang kidnapped the researcher’s teenage daughter five years ago after the researcher made the mistake of working with local police. Menn reported that the researcher received a message saying if he dropped the case, the rest of his children might be okay.

A few weeks back, according to Menn, the researcher got a message that his daughter was in Kazakhstan and he could have her back as long as he agreed not to look into certain of the gang’s activities. According to Menn’s source—who was not the researcher, but an alleged friend of the researcher’s—the girl was fed drugs and raped.

As a parent of a seven-year-old boy, I literally had a physical reaction to that story and had difficulty working for the next hour or so.

Then I became suspicious. First, Menn’s source is anonymous—albeit understandable when it comes to dealing with organized crime. So what we have here is an unverifiable third-party claim—a friend-of-a-friend story, so to speak.

Moreover—if I understood the post correctly—the gang supposedly kidnapped the girl to get her father to stop his efforts and then handed her back to get him to do the same thing.

Now don’t get me wrong, Menn is a far more accomplished journalist than I and I’m not trying to smear his work. I also haven’t read his book and it’s entirely possible the kidnapping story is more convincingly reported there.

I just want to point out that we don’t know this story is true and shouldn’t assume that it is.

Nevertheless, if it happened, that family will never be the same and my heart aches for them.

Also—if it happened—it serves to show how mind-numbingly and inappropriately trivial much of the anti-spam camp’s focus on unsolicited commercial email is.

Take anti-spammer Dan Balsam, for example. He delights in suing companies he claims spammed him. A quick scroll through his list of victories on reveals he goes solely after commercial enterprises.

In 2008, Balsam told the San Francisco Chronicle that his aim was to “clean up the Internet.” The idea that suing companies—that can by definition be served with court papers, mind you—will result in cleaning up the Internet is infantile.

Small-claims litigation won’t even clean the dust bunnies out from under the Internet’s guestroom nightstand.

The Internet’s primary sources of Internet garbage are places like Russia, Nigeria and Romania. And okay, for honesty’s sake, let’s toss in Boca Raton, FL, as well.

But if a company can be served with court papers, it’s not the problem.

And please don’t confuse this argument as defending unsolicited commercial email. It’s not. It’s simply an attempt to put commercial spam in its proper perspective.

It’s also an attempt to point out that the primary debate over spam has been wrongly focused for more than a decade and there are many participants to blame.

When reporters write about spam-related issues—unless the story is specifically about online crime or malware—the piece is invariably focused on nuisance commercial email with an obligatory reference to penis enlargement.

When anti-spam laws are passed, they are also invariably focused on nuisance commercial email.

In anti-spam discussion groups, the poison is generally aimed at marketers. Too often, anti-spammers in general focus their anger at commercial emailers.

For example, when U.K. anti-spam watchdog Spam Ratings published its ridiculous report last month laughably claiming, among other things, that Britain is one of the most dangerous places to surf the Internet in the world, the group pointed the finger specifically at a list of household-name brands as causes of the spam problem.

In 2007, Oklahoma anti-spammer Mark Mumma focused his doomed litigation on commercial enterprises. Likewise, serial anti-spam litigant James Gordon also focused his efforts on commercial messaging.

This is not to say that commercial email should be unregulated or that anti-spammers never address criminal activity.

Spamhaus’s executive director Steve Linford, for example, reportedly had to move to an undisclosed location some years back because of death threats.

That fact alone—as unfortunate and unfair as it is—means he is expending at least some of his energy on the real culprits invading our inboxes and deserves admiration for his bravery.

It is to say, however, that with all the dangerous, criminal elements invading people’s inboxes, getting emotional when a marketer pre-checks the permission-to-send-email box is pathetic.

Message to all those who aim their anti-spam anger primarily at marketers: Think for just a moment that Menn’s kidnapping story may be true. Then hang your heads in shame.


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