Clearing online arteries

Junk e-mail is fast becoming the biggest threat to the productive and efficient use of the Internet.

If a typical user spends just five minutes a day sorting through unwanted e-mail, by the end of the year, that person will have spent more than 30 hours performing this useless task. When that number is multiplied by the tens of millions of Internet users, and a monetary value is assigned to those hours, it is readily apparent that billions of dollars of potentially productive time are lost each year.

Moreover, the problem is getting worse. With the recent discovery of anthrax contamination in parts of the U.S. postal system, and the growing public distrust of unsolicited packages, bulk mail advertisers are turning to e-mail as their medium of choice.

Essentially, there are only three ways to approach the problem. The first is to prohibit the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail. Ultimately, this is the only practical way to curtail junk e-mail. There are many grass-roots efforts to promote the adoption of these sorts of laws. However, no legislature has adopted any of these measures, and there seems little chance of it happening anytime soon.

The second approach to the junk e-mail problem is the "opt-out" strategy. This approach has been used in most of the state and federal laws that have been adopted to date. Under these laws, an end user must take the step of notifying each individual bulk e-mailer that he or she does not wish to receive its notices. In practice, this is no solution at all. There are simply too many bulk e-mailers for this to work. The third approach relies on end users to filter their own e-mail or to arrange for someone else to filter it for them. Filtering software redirects messages from particular return addresses away from the user's inbox. Typically, it can also block messages that contain particular words in the subject line or in the body of the message.

The problem with filtering strategies is that they are very easy to defeat. Commercial bulk e-mailers seldom use the same return e-mail address more than a few times. Also, they often avoid using words in the message that are likely to be blocked by end users.

Filtering strategies are more effective when the user's Internet service pro.vider implements them. Many ISPs, including most telephone companies and cable TV companies, offer junk e-mail filtering as part of their services.

Recently, several states have taken a significant step toward helping in this area. California, Tennessee and Colorado have adopted laws requiring the senders of unsolicited e-mail advertisements to include the notation "ADV:" at the beginning of the subject line. This can greatly enhance the effectiveness of blocking software for users who do not wish to receive these messages.

Congress should act immediately to address this problem as well. Adopting a law similar to the recent state legislation on a national basis would be a valuable first step.

Peckinpaugh is corporate counsel for DynCorp in Reston, Va. This column represents his personal views.

Materials discussed in this column include: California Business and Professional Code 17538.4; Tennessee Code 47-18-2501; Colorado Revised Statutes 6-2.5-103. See also Kelin, S., State Regulation of Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, 16 Berkeley Technology Law Review 435 (2001).

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