Recently America On Line announced its intention to start charging people a "license fee" to send bulk email to AOL subscribers.
The resulting shiver traveling up the spines of mailing list managers and Internet providers all over the world quickly morphed into an all too rare quasi-collective outcry that actually forced AOL into a half-step backwards. Upon reconsideration, the Internet giant announced, it would continue to offer the license but, for those who don't want the license, it would also continue to treat bulk email as it has up to now.
Whatever sighs of relief one might discern are, I think, the sounds of an Internet community threatened with a deadly kick to the head and now relieved that it only has to cope with a boot on its throat.
In fact, the entire debate over the potential harm in AOL's plan overshadows the fact that large commercial providers' response to the problem of "spam" already represents a dangerous and potentially crippling attack on the culture and functioning of the Internet as a vehicle of free speech.
Now let's be clear: email is in crisis because of the huge amount of unwanted bulk email we all receive.
The issue here isn't that the large providers have finally recognized the problem and are trying to deal with it. Trying to dehumidify the house when it's already flooded may show a lack of vision but it's not unjustified.
The problem is their response and at its root -- always a good place to start -- their definition of "spam".
Most people have a pretty simple definition of spam: it's bulk email we don't want.
There's also a popular definition that flows from the "unwanted bulk email" definition: spam is bulk email sent without a reasonable expectation that the people receiving it would be interested in it.
That definition developed because most spam you receive is sent by people who have acquired or purchased huge lists of emails with no reasonable expectation that the people on that list would want to read what they're being sent. It's "shotgun" marketing in its crudest form. So the "reasonable expectation of interest" is a pretty important component.
But the commercial Internet ignores that. Instead, the large providers define spam as "unsolicited bulk email": email sent to more than a small handful of people some of whom didn't ask for it. They do that because they have no idea what you might want or be interested in and have yet to develop a method of figuring that out.
Instead, embarassed by their tardiness and frightened by customer unhappiness, they've declared a war against almost all bulk email, making the term "spam" useless and making email censorship an accepted and publicly acknowledged policy.
They tag bulk email the moment someone complains and make it so easy to complain that people can just push the "complaint" button without knowing the ramifications. If there are a number of complaints -- usually three or four are good enough -- they will block the issuer of that email. They monitor "emailers" who are sending the same email to more than a handful of people and "list" those who have had complaints lodged against them so those with a "complaint history" can be blocked more quickly.
What's most dangerous, they keep records of the sender's IP address -- the numeric address of the server the sender uses.
Those efforts are supported by a mini-industry of "spam detection" companies -- the Internet's version of the vigilante -- who do conduct similar monitoring and then publish blacklists of "suspected spammers and hosts".
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