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Julian D. A. Wiseman
Contents: Introduction, The proposed legislation, The effect of the proposed legislation.
Publication history: Only here. Usual disclaimer and copyright terms apply.
Spam is a modern pestilence. Email boxes overflow with unwanted adverts for loan sharks, pornography and spamming services. Indeed, this author has been particularly afflicted with rubbish from infomailer.com*1, but there are many other guilty parties. Hence this suggestion for legislation that will stop spam, without damaging free speech, and without needing any form of international agreement. Because the author is resident in London, the proposed legislation is written as if it were to become law in the UK.
The suggested legislation would work as follows.
The UK Home Office would maintain a list of email addresses whose owners wish not to receive spam. It would be possible to add individual email address to this no-spam list (via a form on the web, followed by a confirming email). Adding an individual email address would be free of charge.
It would also be possible to add an entire domain to the no-spam list, though the Home Office would charge for this service. The charge (not specified in the legislation) would probably be proportional to the number of email addresses hosted at that domain: perhaps £1 per hundred per annum.
The Home Office would make available a service by which lists of email addresses can be cleaned. A would-be sender of spam would be able to submit a list of email addresses, from which would be removed all those on the no-spam list. The Home Office would charge for this cleaning service: perhaps £1 per hundred addresses rejected, plus £1 per thousand allowed.
The Home Office would never publish the individual email addresses on the non-spam list, though might be permitted to publish those domains that are listed in their entirety.
Once an email address or domain has been on the no-spam list for twenty-eight consecutive days, it becomes an offence to cause spam to be sent to such an address.
For non-natural persons (companies and such like) penalty for such an offence would be a fine. First offence would be a fine of one penny (£0.01) per email; the fine doubles on each subsequent offence until the maximum of £10.24 per email.
For a natural person, the maximum penalty for such an offence would be three months prison and a fine of £1.28 per email.
This legislation would explicitly permit a court, when determining the fine, to estimate the number of emails. The prosecution would need to prove that at least one email was in breach of the Act, but the number of emails in breach would be determined by the judge’s “reasonable estimate”.
This legislation would apply to any email sent from, received in, or passing through any computer in the UK.
Also, the legislation might permit the Home Office to keep several no-spam lists, each applying to advertisements of different types.
Of course, the legislation would have to define spam, perhaps as “unsolicited email sent, in substantially similar form or with automatically generated variations, to many email addresses whose owners are not known personally to the sender”.
In practice, this legislation would eliminate spam globally.
Many email addresses would be added individually to the no-spam list, and most email hosts would list their domains by paying the small fee (£100,000 for a host with ten million addresses, only £10 for a typical corporate email domain with a thousand addresses).
The legislation is not extra-territorial in form: it applies only to emails passing through UK jurisdiction. Large email hosts (Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc) may well choose to bounce emails through a UK-sited computer so as to benefit from this legislation’s protection.
The wording of the offence is drafted here as “to cause spam to be sent”. This would catch a spamming company and its employees. Of course, they might hide in the US, but if a senior employee (or ex-employee) of a spammer ever visits the UK, even if only to change flights at Heathrow Airport, that visit may prove to be longer or more expensive than intended. The legislation would be drafted also to catch an advertiser who knew that its spammer was in breach of this act.
Importantly, there is no impediment to free speech: if someone hasn’t opted out of receiving advertisements, then advertisers are welcome to advertise. And if people do opt out, then tough: free speech does not entitle a speaker to deafen those who do not wish to listen.
Julian D. A. Wiseman, November 2001
Postscript added March 2002. Some readers have commented that, in practice, some spammers may argue in court that one cannot be forced to pay to discover what is illegal. That objection may or may not be sustainable, but it does suggest a variation on the above. The Home Office would list domain names for a fee, but would not list individual email addresses at all. Stripped of the individual email addresses, the list could be and would be published. Then, once a domain has been on the list for 28 days, it would then be an offence to cause spam to be send to that domain. This variation gives more power to webmasters than to individual users, but would still eliminate most spam. It also has the advantage of removing the need for secrecy of the list, and all the computer-security that would entail.
*1 It seems to be impossible to have one’s address removed from infomailer.com’s list. In general I detest litigiousness, but an exception is appropriate here: if anyone is starting a class-action lawsuit against infomailer.com or its employees, count me in. All my financial winnings will go to charity; I’ll only keep the pleasure of learning of their insolvency.
Postscript for UK residents, who might like to know that it is possible to avoid both junk snail-mail and telemarketing calls. Contact the Mailing Preference Service, Freepost 22, W1E 7EZ; and the Telephone Preference Service on 0845 0700707.
Postscript for US residents: register your telephone numbers at www.donotcall.gov and telemarketers musn’t call. Meanwhile, forests are felled to put unwanted junk through my front door. Happily, much of it comes with a freepost envelope: I send my do-not-mail requests at their expense.
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