Is Some Spam Better than Other Spam?

This San Jose Mercury News article argues that not all spam is created equal. The basic story is that a California gubernatorial candidate sent out unsolicited e-mail. His methods were coarse, to say the least. He sent mail to a lot of people who wouldn't be interested in such messages and sent mail to a lot of accounts that no longer exist or never existed in the first place.

The authors, Mike McCurry and Larry Purpuro, argue that though the candidates methods were flawed, spam is a legitimate means of advertising for political candidates. Furthermore, they attack anti-spam advocates who criticized the candidate for his mailing.

Before we move on, I need to point out that, just as I have a bias against people who make my job of maintaining an ISP more difficult, the authors may have a particular bias in favor of spam for politics' sake. Specifically, McCurry is the former press secretary for President Clinton and Larry Purpuro is the former Republican National Committee deputy chief of staff. Those are credentials that shouldn't be overlooked, and I believe it highlights the fundamental flaw in their reasoning.

They argue that if the candidate had used the same tactics in a medium other than e-mail, no one would have raised an eyebrow. I agree. However, unlike McCurry and Purpuro, I don't think that makes it right. I've given up on TV (I do not currently subscribe to cable, satellite, etc.), newspapers (I do not read any paper regularly), magazines (I subscribe to only a few tech periodicals), and all other traditional medium. I've given up because I have no control over the content. In the case of TV, it has become impossible to filter the advertisements from the content.

Just because I've given up on those media, however, doesn't mean I've given up on the Internet. Radio, television, magazines, and newspapers are all "push" technologies. You get what they serve: they're all one way communications media. With the Internet, I select what I want to see. I search for a phrase and, if it looks like something I'm interested in, click a link. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, and I move on. My decision, my fault.

Spam, pop-up banner ads, and spyware violate that precept. They force me to sift through content that I'm simply not interested in. Still, I have to agree with McCurry and Purpuro that I would not mind so much if my tolerance hadn't been pushed to its limits by the violence and offensiveness of some spam -- but it has.

I think I can say, from the perspective of someone who works at an ISP and deals with Internet customers day in and out that just about everyone has been pushed to the limit by spam. The irony is that this is a medium that most people enjoyed because it did not "push." It simply offered a wealth of information. We just had to figure out how to take advantage of it.

I don't think McCurry and Purpuro agree with that. They seem to think that they have a democratic privilege -- though they'd probably say "inalienable right" -- to send spam in the name of political advocacy. The problem is, every one thinks they're special, that they should be exempt from the rules. Democracy's about equality: if they have the right, then e-mail marketing companies should have the right. And then where does it end?


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