The Internet has been hijacked. Purveyors of diets, sexual aids, cheap credit, and other items of dubious value clog computer networks daily with millions of electronic mail messages to an increasingly irate public. Technology has struggled to block it, with only limited success. Lawmakers have had enough, and are working on measures to fight it.
Like a bad horror movie, the spam monster stalks the world, surreptitiously entering households through their Internet portals. The victims are 600 million e-mail users worldwide, 180 million of them in the United States.
The U.S. trade regulating agency, the Federal Trade Commission, estimates that unsolicited advertising accounts for at least 40 percent of e-mail traffic. Internet service providers fear that it will slow the network.
"Spam is a pernicious problem," said David Baker, vice president for law and public policy at the U.S. Internet service provider Earthlink. "There has been a five-fold increase in spam in the past 18 months, so what was last year just an annoyance is reaching critical proportions now."
Spam purveyors use efficient computer programs to break into e-mail accounts. One technique generates millions of random addresses, and sends them out in the hope that some will match a target. Another method scours the internet for e-mail addresses submitted to commercial Web sites, online discussion groups and bulletin boards, or other pages.
Spammers can pounce with lightning speed on new e-mail addresses. The Federal Trade Commission discovered this in an experiment in which it created 250 new e-mail accounts and used each only once. The agency's assistant director, Eileen Harrington, explains the result.
"We just sat back to see what would happen. Within eight minutes of posting those addresses, we started getting spam in some of those accounts," she said. "Now, there is nothing that people can do to protect their e-mail addresses from the most sophisticated of these tools."
Internet service providers and e-mail programs try to prevent unsolicited electronic traffic with filtering programs. They block messages based on titles and other content. But wily spammers use deception to circumvent them, often masking the true nature of the content. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission says two-thirds also evade detection by hiding or falsifying their names or return addresses.
"We learned from one business that they estimate that it costs them $1 in total costs, including lost productivity, for every piece of spam that comes into their system," said the FTC's Eileen Harrington. She says spam is more than merely inconvenient. "We heard from another Internet service provider that it estimates that 50 percent of their annual budget for broadband is consumed with spam."
Lawmakers around the world are reacting. A tough European Union law takes effect in October. It requires bulk e-mailers to get permission from computer users before including their addresses in mailing lists.
The U.S. Congress, led by the Republican Party, is taking the opposite approach. To protect bulk e-mail sent by legitimate businesses, proposed legislation would require recipients to request removal from lists, but the advertising messages would have to provide an easy way of doing so. The U.S. measures, forged in rare bipartisan unity, would also make deception illegal, and limit the number of messages someone could send.
But pro-market advocates like Wayne Crews of the Cato Institute in Washington believe new laws are not the answer. Mr. Crews says the solution is market approaches, including better anti-spam technology and making bulk e-mailers pay for what is now free.
"Legislative commands are going to be ignored by the most egregious spammers," he said. "If legislation sends the worst spammers off shore, all we will have accomplished is legal regulatory hassles for legitimate businesses trying to make a go [succeed] at legitimate e-commerce and mainstream companies that already follow best practices honoring those unsubscribe requests."
Mr. Crews also fears anti-spam legislation would interfere with the constitutional right of free speech. Others welcome legislation, but say that, at best, it is only part of a many-sided solution against unsolicited e-mail.
David Baker of Earthlink identifies five approaches. "The reality is that there is no one thing that is going to cure this problem," he said. "Rather, it is going to take legislation; it is going to take litigation; it is going to take enforcement; it is going to take industry cooperation; and it is going to take technical solutions to solve this problem."
Yet, the tenacity of spammers is such that the best anyone expects to do is slow the onslaught.
If that fails to happen, Eileen Harrington worries about the Internet's future.
"Are people going to just turn away from the Internet or turn away from e-mail because there is so much spam," she asks.