Direct e-mail access opens door for unwanted spam

Should agencies provide employee mailing lists? Under the old Freedom of Information
Act, agencies could hand out hard copies of the agency telephone book. But the new
Electronic FOIA says that agencies must provide the information in electronic media if
available. With the rapid growth of electronic mail directories, most agencies are
consolidating and integrating their e-mail directories.


It's quite possible that we may regret that development.


Although direct e-mail access can improve customer service, it can also lead to inboxes
full of electronic junk mail, also known as spam.


Tax dollars can be frittered away by federal employees obliged to read endless
electronic messages selling advice, pornography, get-rich-quick schemes and other shady
deals. It's hard to imagine a legitimate need to read this trash.


True, we get hard-copy junk mail, but the sender must pay for printing and postage.
E-mail goes out all around the world to millions of recipients at virtually no cost to the
sender. The recipient pays for the Internet connection and e-mail storage, as well as the
hours spent sorting through the clutter. In the end, the taxpayer pays for spam and gets
no benefit.


A spammer's initial request to the agency can appear innocent. He may offer to publish
the addresses and sell advertising while he's at it. He doesn't have to explain why he
wants the information. He simply requests a file of names and e-mail addresses.


Perhaps the best agency response is to state that such information relates solely to
internal personnel rules and practices. Because electronic mail is used by employees only
for official business, the release of e-mail addresses may result in a large amount of
unsolicited mail that could deny use of the computers. For FOIA mavens, this is the
"(b)(2) exemption with foreseeable harm" test. The Justice Department should
support agencies, but the issue has not been tested in court.


Meanwhile, agencies need to protect themselves from the inevitable onslaught. Computer
viruses are nothing compared to spam. Viruses are malevolent and have no constitutional
rights. But spammers can claim their rights to freedom of speech. Spam filters may be a
technical solution. But the deletion of e-mail messages to government officials may raise
protests of censorship.


Under the junk fax law, businesses may offer goods and services via fax messages only
if the recipient has asked for the information or has a previous business relationship
with the company. At any time, recipients may ask to be taken off mailing lists, and the
sender must comply. Civil penalties of $500 per message give this law some teeth. The fine
can go higher for willful violations or failure to provide a valid return fax number.


We should then extend the same terms to e-mail. The arguments against spam and junk fax
are similar. Cost shifting to the recipient and denial of service are two important
arguments common to both technologies. Denial of service happens because many e-mail users
and mailing lists have a daily limit on traffic. Spam can prevent legitimate message
delivery.


The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail is calling for a legal ban on
unsolicited e-mail advertising. CAUCE has drafted an amendment to the federal law that
bans unsolicited fax ads. The proposal would give e-mail users control of the kinds of
advertising they are willing to accept in their mailboxes, with options such as shutting
it off completely, asking for more and receiving all the junk the spammers want to send.


The House of Representatives is considering a bill, supported by CAUCE, that is
preferable to the counterpart Senate bill.


The House bill places the main burden on the spammers, not on the Internet service
providers.


The Senate bill provides an opt-out for online advertising. You must act to stop
receiving advertisements, not to start receiving them.


The House bill, in contrast, has the opt-in provision. Making the service providers
establish the opt-out creates an incentive for making the opt-out easy to use, which is
the typical problem with opt-out provisions.


The CAUCE World Wide Web site at http://www.cauce.org
has more information on spam and the proposed legislation, a frequently-asked-questions
page and a sign-up page where you can join CAUCE to receive a newsletter on spam issues.
Electronic signatures will be sorted and delivered to the appropriate senators and
representatives.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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