On the Other Hand...

In Praise of "Spam"

by Jim Davies

Now that most of the world is wired, most of the world is screeching to government that it doesn't like unsolicited commercial e-mail ("Spam") and will the government please do something about it. Surprise, surprise: the government is only too willing to respond.

This is absolutely irrational, and if most of the world gets itself plunged thereby into a new dark age of ignorance and repression, most of the world will deserve its fate. Unfortunately, most of the world will drag me and other less benighted participants along with it, and that is why I'm taking this trouble to try to stop it before it's too late.

John Q happily spends at least one hour every evening watching TV commercials about panty hose and pharmaceuticals and flashy new cars, but never thinks to complain at that total waste of his time; for he knows (if he thinks at all) that his receiver has an OFF switch and that in a free society, anyone can say anything. He spends a buck or so every day purchasing a newspaper, half or more of which consists of unsolicited commercial announcements. He drives happily by billboards, that obstruct his enjoyment of the countryside. He opens snail-mail, a large portion of which may be "junk"; yet he thinks nothing of the cost of equipping his residence with a waste basket into which to toss it. Every January he may not only open one particular piece of junk mail (a "1040 Instruction Booklet" from the IRS) but may even surrender large sums of money to those con-artists without a shred of legal need!

But when it comes to email, John Q holds a different standard; and so is revealed as a hypocrite and a censor and a snitch; as irrational. This is not a good sign, for the future health of the Race.

Overstated

The above would be true even if the Spam problem were serious; but it's not. It's grossly overstated. I receive at least 60 unsolicited commercial emails a day and it takes me less than 5 minutes to handle the lot. That's partly because I have my act together, and partly because my email server helpfully classifies my incoming email as [spam] if a battery of tests suggest that it is. That flagging makes it easy for my (free) email software to filter most such emails into a special holding tank for later review. ISPs have been increasingly good at offering scrutiny of that kind, and mine is 100% correct so far. He doesn't spot all incoming Spam, but I've never seen a false positive and that's the way I like it.

Having thereby coralled the suspects, I then take a few moments to review their listed subject titles and sender names, and if none are of interest I make a couple of clicks and delete them all. End of problem. Even with today's unwelcome volume, and particularly with the disgusting content of some messages, it wastes only a few minutes a day; and once in a while, this advertising does reveal something of interest.

Even if it did not, the alternative of choking off free speech is unacceptable. Even if I reckon the cost of those lost few daily minutes, that cost is well worth it, to preserve the liberty to say whatever I want, whenever I want. That is priceless. Without that freedom, you would probably not be able to read material like this article. And then where would you be?

Alternative

The opposite of free speech is controlled speech; citizens would be allowed to communicate only what the government permits. There are already scary signs of such restrictions in the Nation's centers of higher learning, so-called; "politically correct" speech on campus has long since ceased to be a joke. You say or write something outside the Speech Code, and your gateway to a more prosperous career is slammed shut. Little wonder, perhaps, that the knee-jerk reaction by otherwise intelligent Netizen graduates to Spam is to call for its abolition. That an entire generation has been thus indoctrinated is ominous on its own.

Signs of speech limitation elsewhere are already appearing. Turn up at any airport to take a flight, and pass through the hands (literally!) of the TSA, the government's "Transportation Security Administration." Dare to say in an agent's hearing that you think it wastes your time, or that it's staffed by a bunch of overpaid queers eager to grope, or that any resolute terrorist could easily find his way around the searches, and you'll not catch your plane. In fact, you may not catch any plane; for the TSA will snitch to the airline, and the airline may take the hint and declare you non persona grata. And if you happen to have the wrong ethnic origin or the wrong religion or the wrong passport you may very possibly wind up in an orange jumpsuit in an iron cage with zero access to a lawyer, zero family visits and zero prospect of ever getting out; thanks to those nice Christian gentlemen Mr Bush and Mr Ashcroft, and to the vast majority of the 535 Demopublicans in D.C. who voted for it all without having taken the time to read it.

That's where the alternative to free speech is already leading. Already! And they have hardly yet begun!

Solution

Spam, then, is much less serious a problem than the spam-hating bigots allege, and is infinitely preferable to the government- designed alternative. Even so, to the small extent that it remains a significant problem, there is a very obvious free- market solution that has not yet been tried and I blame the ISP industry for that failure; its members seem to be staffed by bureaucrats rather than business entrepreneurs. They have been quite good at processing messages on the way in, but have done nothing rational to them on the way OUT, ie at the point of sending.

Pricing is flat. That's the problem. To each according to his need (none place any limits on how many emails may be sent) and from each according to his ability ($20 a month or whatever, regardless of usage.)

Yes, they all prohibit Spam, and we all know how effective that is. But if you jump on the Net once a week or once an hour, or if you send 10 emails a day or 1,000, you still pay the same $20 a month. That is just plain silly. Marxist, in fact.

If even one ISP would break the mold and charge by usage, it would not be long before the rest followed the example; for his profits would soar and the others would not fail to notice; his costs would go down (less traffic) and his revenues up (some customers would pay more.)

True, it might well be good marketing to offer a basic service for a basic flat fee - say, $15 a month for 100 hours on-line and up to 10,000 outgoing emails. But above that, users pay more; say, $5 per 10,000 extra outgoing emails.

So a very busy business user sending out 100,000 emails a month would be charged (15 + (5 x 9) =) $60 a month. To him, that would be a reasonable cost. And a Spammer, sending out a million emails a month, would have to pay (15 + (5 x 99) =) $510/mo. That would be a serious business cost; still profitable for some, but not for all. Spam, therefore, would become limited - the proper, free-market way: by price. Not by the mindless, monstrous steam- hammer called Law.

Some object that the day a Spammer's ISP announces such a price scale, he will take his business elsewhere - to China, India etc. So he may. Then those Oriental ISPs will find themselves boycotted by receiving ISPs in America, until they too adopt a rational price schedule. Good practice will drive out sloppy practice.

Silk Purse

Freedom lovers have been foolishly and thoughtlessly following convention and perceiving Spam as a problem, instead of as the major opportunity it really is. Just think; we have a priceless message, of emancipation; and we have a fabulous, new, low-cost way to spread it! Greater even than the invention of printing, this has never happened before, in all history!

Yet what are most of us doing, but mindlessly parrotting conventional wisdom: Spam is bad, Spam is a nuisance, Spam should even be outlawed.

Come on, people, get your heads on straight! Find out how to SEND Spam, effectively, to let the wired universe know that government is a terrible idea whose time never even came, and which ought now to be trashed! Phrase the message however you will, but get to work and spread the news: that nothing, no nothing, is today done by government that could not be done better or cheaper or both by a free, unfettered, capitalist market. That most of all justice, that essential ingredient of any peaceful society, would be delivered infinitely better than government ever has, or ever will.

We have a microphone, more powerful than any in history; let's use it!

© Copyright Jim Davies 2003

Jim Davies lives in New Hampshire,
and enjoys contemplating which way is up.

The above is Edition # 325

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