Mail Through the Revolving Door

The most infuriating aspect of spam is that those sending it were not invited to offer their wares. Even if they are forgiven for not being invited, the content of the messages can be exhausting.

A person sits down at his computer, opens the electronic mail program and nearly falls off his chair. A flood of tasteless, unnecessary offers, some pornographic and filthy, from advertisers he's never heard of and never wanted to hear from, fills his inbox.

It's called spam and in the past year it has become a major problem. Research companies say more than 50 percent of the e-mails sent daily - hundreds of millions of messages - are spam.

E-mail was invented in the 1970s. The idea was to build a system through which any person connected to the Internet could send a message to any other person on the Net. It's an open, free, inviting system - for people who want to harass others, as well.

The most infuriating aspect of spam is that those sending it were not invited to offer their wares. Even if they are forgiven for not being invited, the content of the messages can be exhausting. "Increase your penis size," "Get a cheap mortgage," "Only $1,500 for a doctorate from Tajikistan University" and other ridiculous offers, which it seems hard to believe anyone could find tempting.

What hasn't been tried against this infuriating phenomenon? Dozens of tech companies developed applications with the sole purpose of stopping the spam before it arrives in the inbox. The results are far from satisfactory, since they often erase innocent messages on suspicion that those are spam, as well.

The American legislature has been called into play, passing laws in 26 states and imposing heavy fines on anyone found to be a serial spammer. That also didn't help. Spammers use the open system of electronic mail to camouflage their real identities. In most cases, they counterfeit or forge their e-mail address so it appears that the person who sent the message is someone entirely different. Therefore, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to locate the originating sender.

It's reached the point that Stanford University professor Lawrence Lessig recently proposed a law to allow ordinary citizens to hunt down spammers for bounties, like the law that allows citizens to hunt other lawbreakers. If it's the Wild West, why not go all the way? Lessig is certain that move would significantly reduce the number of people dealing in spam and said he would resign from his prestigious post at Stanford if he is proven wrong.

Lessig's combative approach is mistaken. The attitude toward spam should be more submissive, accepting, conciliatory. Why? Because spam is the record companies' revenge. Are record companies behind spam? No. Do they encourage it? No. The connection is to be found elsewhere.

The record companies have been complaining for the past four years about people downloading music from the Net. The Web surfers explain to the companies that the world has changed. There's no more source and no more copies, just files that move from one person to another - for free. Record company executives are pulling out their hair. They spend fortunes on lawyers to sue companies (like Napster) that operate file-swapping sites, they waste enormous sums on lobbyists who promote laws that would hurt file swappers, they even invest in technology meant to prevent copying music CDs. The company executives know they cannot win the campaign, but they are fighting as long as they can.

Are they succeeding? No. They are failing because it is a new era. They are failing because the digital era has a price and part of it is being paid by the record companies, which are finding that technology develops much faster than any law, any legal precedent, any effort to stop it. They are finding out that, in the era of open doors and open windows, it's impossible to put a lock on every CD.

But the other side of the coin is spam. Viruses and spam also flow through the wide-open windows. The open Net serves as a revolving door. Sometimes a Bruce Springsteen song comes in and sometimes it's an e-mail message pushing Viagra.

Life in the digital age is much easier than it was in the previous era. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine life without search engines, fax machines, SMS messaging and e-mail. But, just as life in the city offers advantages, like proximity to the theater, cinema and round-the-clock pizza delivery, it also exacts a price in traffic jams, pollution and few green spaces. The price that Internet users pay is spam; the price that record companies pay is file-swapping applications. Now, everyone can get back in line and suffer in silence.