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Spam Is Sublime

By Annalee Newitz

THERE ARE all kinds of good reasons to oppose the federal anti-spam bill known familiarly as CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act). The bill, which President Bush signed late last year, criminalizes a variety of spam-related acts like falsifying email addresses, sending commercial email with deceptive subject lines and harvesting email addresses from websites. The problem with it and a variety of similar state bills (some of which are more stringent than CAN-SPAM) is that they don't provide satisfactory definitions of spam.

For example, CAN-SPAM stipulates that someone can be prosecuted only if they knowingly intended to break the law by sending their irritating bulk mail. As many critics of the bill have argued, intent in these cases will be ridiculously hard to prove: since most companies outsource their spamming, executives can claim ignorance. In addition, who gets to decide when an email is "commercial"? What if I send you an unsolicited email with a silly or irrelevant subject header, and at the end, I say, "Hey, I'm working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation now, and we'd love to get a donation from you." Under the CAN-SPAM bill, I could be prosecuted as a spammer for that. After all, I have a misleading subject header in a mail where I ask you for money.

Another scary thing about CAN-SPAM is that it targets sexually oriented mail that isn't properly labeled as such. The idea is that mail headers should warn you if the email is potentially offensive. Although porn spam is irritating, I worry that adult webmasters who send out a lot of email will be prosecuted far out of proportion to their "crimes"--especially now that Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced that he's back on the anti-sex warpath and hired the infamous anti-porn lawyer Bruce Taylor to help. CAN-SPAM makes it much easier to define adult material as spam than it does the zillions of Viagra and mortgage ads I get every day. So we may see a lot of pornographers getting put out of business for spamming, while Cisco gets to keep sending me unsolicited E-blurts about their upcoming certification classes.

But there's another reason to hate anti-spam bills, and that is quite simply because spam is fun. There's no reason to fear spam if you have a decent spam-filtering program like Spam Assassin. Even the built-in spam filter in my Mozilla browser catches about 80 percent of my junk mail, which is far more than CAN-SPAM could ever promise.

Plus, I'm willing to admit it: I don't want to miss groovy irrational emails like the one I got last week, which said, "Just got this from CNN: Osama bin Laden has just been captured! A video and some pictures have been released. Go to the link below for pictures. I will update the page with the video as soon as I can: God Bless America!" What do you think I found on the site when I visited? You guessed it: Viagra.

Even better are the positively poetic subject lines I get regularly with my spam. I've actually started keeping a list of the best ones. Here is a small sample:

Subject: dreary pulse erodible. This makes me think of a Cure song circa 1987. Robert Smith whines that his heartbeat bores him, even as his life is slowly being washed away by tides of sadness.

Subject: earn random stormpay every day. OK, this is exactly the kind of pay I want to earn. It should be daily and random, and obviously storms will be involved somehow. Or are the storms themselves random? Even more peculiarly, perhaps the payment is for creating storms on a daily basis, but at random intervals.

Subject: live large electra ignominious. A tragic Greek heroine who had a weird relationship with her father, Electra may be ignominious, but hell, she's livin' large!

Subject: your penis your life eccentric chad beebe. First of all, I love the name Chad Beebe. I also like the odd echo of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" here: poor Chad Beebe cannot distinguish between his penis and his life. Having confused his long-gone youthful masculinity with life itself, the eccentric Chad wanders in an unpunctuated daze where selfhood and genitals merge with each other.

And don't even get me started on the names of people who send me spam. I've been receiving regular missives from Undeceive L. Apricots, Miocene U. Chileans, Dewberries C. Doggedly and (my personal favorite) Thermonuclear G. Goriness. Thanks to the bizarre linguistic treats sent to me from some unknown and incomprehensible source, I can amuse myself at any time by composing little spam notes in my head: Dear Thermonuclear (if I may be so familiar): Thank you for your mail! Is your penis your life? Do you want some dreary pulses? Have a random stormpay today!

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who misses all those farm sex emails she used to receive.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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