December 09, 2003
You've Got Junk Mail!

I hear that the federal government is going to pass a law to define and prohibit certain kinds of electronic junk mail.

At what point does junk e-mail cross over from being protected free speech into being a nuisance that infringes upon the free speech of others?

I, like many people who have worked for a while in and around the internet, am inundated with digital noise to the point where it makes it impossible for me to quickly, reasonably, and accurately sift through my e-mail to read legitimate messages. The signal to noise ratio is *so* huge, I can't just sit down and read all of my e-mail. I need filters to pull messages with specific content to bring them to my attention, and then I'm still missing key e-mail scattered among what's left. So, like many others, I use a filter to sort the rest (two filters, actually), and the filter(s) often fails to catch some junk while it incorrectly flags a legit piece of e-mail as noise.

In any given day, I probably would only have to spend about a half hour attending to my e-mail to deal with legitimate messages (even including legitimate solicitations for my business, and there are a few, you know). But the avalanche of junk e-mail extends the time required so much as to make e-mailing a major hassle.

I went to bed last night at 4am, and I cleaned out my junk mail filter before going to bed. I got up at 8am and checked my e-mail, and I already had a megabyte worth of junk e-mail waiting for me in the filter. Bleh.

I also notice lately that a lot of the junk isn't even trying to sell me anything or draw me into some particular website. Rather, it's just a collection of random words or selections from news articles or short stories that have no context and no reason. I'm guessing that this is an attempt by some of the junk mailers to confuse "smart" junk mail filters that look for patterns in the content to determine what's noise and what's not.

At this point, then, the junk mailers are no longer just harrassing me by making it difficult for me to receive legitimate messages because I'm inundated with offers I have no interest in. They are deliberately trying to confound my ability to even do the sorting. Sending me a random collection of words or a context-free snippet from some (copyrighted) passage is not even speech. It is outright harrassment above and beyond the problematic deluge of low-content unsolicited junk e-mail.

So where does junk e-mail cross the line between free speech and infringement of *my* rights? Some unsolicited mail is actually a good thing, in my humble opinion. But these days, most of it is not. I'd say the line is somewhere between zero messages a day and one megabyte's worth. Somewhere between a genuine sales pitch to an appropriately targetted audience and a sack of random words intended to gag my mailbox. But within that broad range, where should the line be drawn?

Here's to our federal government. May they draw the line fairly and firmly.

Posted by on December 09, 2003 10:08 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits

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