Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tackling spam - some freedom of expression problems

Wendy McElroy explains that new US anti-spam / child protection laws could criminalise perfectly ordinary email mailing lists, while attempting to comply with the laws will involve handing a list of recipients over to the government for vetting:
Both Utah and Michigan have created a 'child protection registry' for email addresses that belong to children or to which children have access. It functions like a 'no call list.' explains, 'Once an email address is on the registry, commercial emailers are prohibited from sending it anything containing advertising, or even just linking to advertising, for a product or service that a minor is otherwise legally prohibited from accessing, such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, prescription drugs, or adult-rated material.' In short, e-newsletters (such as are not permitted to send to registered email addresses if those newsletters include URLs to news sites that, in turn, link to child-inappropriate commerical information or products such as casino or viagra ads, tobacco or alcohol for sale.

Many credible news sources -- especially British ones, it seems -- offer links to adult-themed sites or products. These links can change constantly, which means that it is impossible to check a URL and 'clear' it of so-called objectionable links or ads.

Moreover, e-mailing to registered addresses is illegal even if the newsletter was requested, and the legal penalties for doing so are imposed without notifying the offender so that he/she can rectify the situation. What are those penalties? To quote Prof. Mitchell again, 'Under these laws...that email sender faces strict liability which can include up to 3 years in prison, and fines of $30,000 or more. In addition, ISPs and the individuals whose email addresses are on the registry have a right of action against the sender, as does the state attorney general.'

The only protection is for the emailer to make sure that a particular address is not 'illegal' by matching his/her mailing list against the registries. That process requires at least two things that I am unwilling to do: 1) turn my mailing list over to the government; and 2) pay a per-address fee.
There's more on these new laws from Declan McCullagh at

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