Beware the virtual hawkers tapping at your windows

A British anti-spam group is locked in a US court battle defending the people’s right to virtual privacy. Let’s hope the spammers fry

For all its undoubted benisons, the free market economy gives rise to a certain pushiness that we could well do without. E-mail, for instance, is an undoubted boon, speeding communication and giving rise on occasion to much merriment at the expense of the indiscreet, but on the debit side it attracts a horde of virtual gipsies.

Each morning when I turn on my computer, there they are, jostling against each other, banging on the inside of the screen, pulling faces and screaming for attention like a gang of itinerant peddlars tapping on a drawing room window. But, instead of proffering hand-whittled clothes pegs or dusters, they invite me with much clamour to consider the benefit of having an “erection like steel”, or of attracting women with the ease that a shire horse attracts gadflies simply by applying to the earlobe a substance called pheremone cologne. No, not interested? They persist. Well, how about winning a fortune on our super jackpot casino? Hey, don’t go away, not when you could be missing out on the holiday of a lifetime in the Florida Everglades.

Spam is an intrusive menace and there are times when even one as mild-mannered, pacific and, if truth be told, cowardly as myself longs for a virtual meat cleaver with which to butcher the bastards who daily invade my privacy. Surely there is not a soul alive who can defend this loathsome misuse of electronic mail? Of course there is.

His name is David Linhardt and he is president of a small Chicago-based marketing company called E360insight.com, which specialises in shooting off e-mails on behalf of its clients. He is at present at war with the Spamhaus Project, a non-profit organisation based in London whose mission is to offer anti-spam protection for internet networks and to stave off an onslaught of unsolicited bulk e-mail. It operates through a network of 25 volunteers around the world and claims to have an impact. It compiles blacklists or “blocklists” of offenders and, according to its chief executive, Steve Linford, it scuppers 50 billion spams a day. Among those blocked were messages dispatched by E360insight. Last month, the company obtained an order in Illinois federal court ordering Spamhaus to post a Web notice saying E360 was not a spammer and to pay it $11.7m in damages. Spamhaus declined to defend itself in the US case, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction over a British group.

In the US, the Can-Spam Act of 2003 permits bulk e-mailing provided messages are marked as advertising and include a means for the recipient to decline them. Linhardt says his bulk mailings for clients are sent only to people who have signed up to receive them. Nonsense, says Spamhaus, it has collected samples of Linhardt’s e-mail messages sent to the group’s own investigators, along with examples sent in by internet users who said they never agreed to accept such material.

If and when the case is resolved, it may help in drawing a distinction between spam and legitimate marketing by e-mail, and hasten an internationally agreed definition of spam. In the meantime, may I recommend a spam filter, such as SpamSieve, which I have found to be effective. The gipsies are still there, of course, pressing their noses against the screen and waving promises of a tumescence of such magnitude that it shall make a pole-vaulter of me, but the filter muzzles and corrals them into a trash can so that I may later zap them at my leisure.

Marketing is offensive only when it cannot be avoided, which is why I am not personally troubled by the prospect of American-style product placement on British television. Last week, Ofcom said that most consumer and viewer groups were against allowing companies to buy space for cars, mobile phones and chocolate bars in commercial television programmes. Although most broadcasters favour “stealth advertising”, viewers fear that paid-for products would be intrusive and give advertisers too much influence in editorial content, said the report.

Phooey. If it is your preference to peer nightly into a dung heap you cannot with much conviction protest that, by an incursion of shiny-backed beetles, it might be further contaminated. A glance at ITV’s schedules shows there is nothing that could detract from their quality because you cannot subtract from zero. However, potential viewers such as myself who value those few remaining brain cells unaffected by the combined ravages of time and Greene King are advised to avoid television entirely. Viewing serves only to coarsen the mind, dull the humour, and exacerbate life’s fitful fever. •

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