We thank the following people who have contributed to this document:
Q. Isn't spam protected by national Free Speech laws?
No. Free speech guarantees you the right to say what you want,
within reason; it does not guarantee you a
platform to make
yourself heard in. My daily newspaper will take any commercial
advertisement, subject to two constraints: (a) it must fit
within their advertising guidelines, and (b) the advertiser
must pay for the costs of distribution. Spam fails on both
of these counts.
Furthermore, different countries have different free speech laws.
What may be legal in one country may be entirely unlawful elsewhere.
Even in the U.S., where there are strong explicit free speech protections,
the Supreme Court has upheld many restrictions on speech, far beyond
the stereotypical example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
have been no serious challenges to the U.S. junk FAX law, which restricts
the ability of advertisers to send unsolicited messages to FAX machines, on
the ground that the cost is borne by the recipient.
Lastly, there are many commonsense restrictions on the freedom of
instance, abusive phone calls are considered harassment and no one would try
to argue that restrictions on them would impinge on freedom of speech. As
another example, you can not be forced to pay postage on paper junk mail sent
to you. Every medium is different; common sense dictates that different
rules apply to handing out free leaflets in the park and calling people in
their homes. It is time to enforce some common sense on the Net.
Q. Isn't blocking spam censorship?
No. Censorship is blocking information based on its content.
Spam-blocking merely keeps the content in its proper place. My
local public library has a bulletin board where people can post
for-sale ads and business cards; they would be rightfully upset at
someone who inserted an advertising flyer inside every book on
the shelves, which is the equivalent of posting a notice to every
It would be censorship to try to restrict advertising from all parts
of the Internet. However, asking someone to pay the fair costs of their
actions is not censorship, it's simple economics.
Q. Commerce is on Usenet and the Internet to stay. Aren't
anti-spammers just anti-commerce in disguise?
No. Protecting users from spam makes the Internet more
to commerce, not less. Employers are more likely to let their
employees read Usenet at work if the newsgroups remain topical
and functional. Using e-mail for business is much easier if
mailboxes aren't clogged with extraneous material. People are
much likelier to take Net commerce seriously if they don't think
of the Net as a cesspool of scams, questionable products, and
Many of the people fighting spam are already conducting commerce on
the Internet. Some of
us are even old hands at it. We want to promote responsible commercialization
of the Internet, not an all-out land-grab. Right now, spammers are using
unethical tactics, stealing resources from sites and users, to try to get a
leg up on people who follow the rules.
Q. Isn't spam just the same as traditional paper advertising (third
class or "junk" mail)?
No. Third-class mailers pay a fee to distribute their materials. Spam
is the equivalent of third-class mail that arrives postage-due.
Real people pay real money, in the form of disk space charges, connect
time, or even long-distance net connections, to transmit and receive
junk e-mail and newsgroup postings. Unless we utterly overhaul the
Internet's mail and news software to charge a mailing fee, spam is
taking advantage of the cooperative nature of the Net.
Indeed, spam is most like junk FAXes, which are sent at the convenience
of the sender and the expense of the recipient. With third class mail, if you
don't want it, you throw it out, and it takes very little time. If you
are interested, you open it. Spam email costs you and your provider money to
receive whether you ever read it or not.
Q. Then isn't spam just the equivalent of traditional telemarketing?
No. Traditional telemarketers are closely regulated by law in
many countries. For example, in the US,
they are prohibited from calling businesses, and they are required to
stop calling anyone who asks to be put on their "do-not-call" list.
Spammers do not follow these, or any of the other, restrictions on
If you complain about spammers, they
just harass you, and if you call their provider, you get indifference much of
The difference again is who pays the cost - a telemarketer will
have to staff up, rent phone lines, and pay monthly and often per-minute
phone charges. Telemarketers cannot call collect. A spammer gets a
throwaway account or a free trial disk, or
signs up with a mass-mailing company, and blasts
a message at hundreds of thousands of people.
In many ways spamming resembles those automated calling machines that
became popular with telemarketers a few years ago. They programmed the
machines to dial their way through entire prefixes, and frequently the
machines hung people's phone lines and literally wouldn't go away. Likewise,
spammers get email address lists and run through them. I [Scott] used to run
a public mail node, and I get messages on a weekly basis for defunct accounts,
and they're all spam.
Spam can be viewed as machines harassing people in a way which is very
cheap for the machine and a substantial burden to the people.
Q. There is a central clearinghouse you can write to to get your name
taken off of most direct-mail-advertisers' mailing lists; is there
an equivalent for electronic advertising?
No. A few people have advertised such a service (generally through
spam!), but people who tested them with new e-mail addresses made
up for the purpose found them flooded with spam within a few weeks.
There is just no enforcement mechanism for such a list. If we
compiled a list and gave it to the spammers to delete, chances are they would
just add all of the addresses to their target lists.
Q. Is spam legal?
Part of the problem is that the explosive growth of the Internet, and
the very recent rise of professional spammers, has moved much faster
than the laws, or the knowledge of the people who are supposed to
enforce them. For example, most people at the US FCC, which has
jurisdiction over interstate junk faxes, don't even know what junk
e-mail is, let alone how the laws they enforce apply
to it. (The FCC's Consumer Litigation department can be reached
toll-free at 1-888-225-5322)
Many people think that spam can be shoehorned into the provisions of the U.S.
anti-junk-fax and telemarketer regulation laws (US Code
47.5.II), but to our knowledge this has not yet been tested in
There's a good chance that spam is illegal under various U.S. state laws. For
example, a case has been brought against a spammer based on the Washington
state junk fax law. The Washington law defines a telefacsimile message as
"the transmittal of electronic signals over telephone lines for conversion
into written text." Check your state law if you would like to sue a
In the U.S., everything not explicitly illegal is permitted. Until a court
makes a decision, or Congress passes a law, spam may be legal here. However,
there are plenty of precedents in common and tort law that find similar
activities illegal. In a nutshell, spamming is theft of service, and theft is
illegal without needing special laws.
In some countries, unauthorized use of computing resources is a crime.
[If you know about legal issues with spam in other countries,
please let us know!]
Another part of the problem is that many people want as little
government interference in the Internet as possible. Although
the Internet has its roots in a U.S. Government network, it is
currently a cooperative coalition of commercial carriers. It is
far better for the carriers to agree on the rules than for the
government to step in and set up inflexible laws.
Yet another facet is the international nature of the Internet. If
one country passes laws against spam, professional spammers will just
move abroad, the same way that the phone sex lines moved to the
Carribean after the U.S. regulations on them became too restrictive.
Q. Where can I advertise?
You can advertise on anything you own - your own Web site, any mailing lists
you run (as long as people sign up voluntarily - note that much spam amounts
to mailing lists people are signed up to without being asked), any newsgroups
that belong wholly to you. You can't advertise on other people's mailing
lists without their permission, on public newsgroups (by and large), or using
other people's e-mail boxes, any more than you can put a billboard up in
somebody's front lawn.
Q. Can I advertise on the biz.* newsgroups?
Basically, no. See the
BIZ Newsgroup FAQ
Q. What does "spamvertise" mean?
It means to "advertise via spam."
Q. Can we create a "postage stamp" system for e-mail and eliminate spam by
making it cost too much to send it?
It seems extremely unlikely. In order to successfully handle postage on every
e-mail sent today, someone would have to build an electronic payment system
that is 10-100 times bigger than the biggest payment processors in the world,
and suceed in making a profit on transactions of just a few cents each. See
paper on e-postage for more