The Michigan House of Representatives is actively considering legislation to require commercial e-mailers to insert “ADV” as the first three characters in the subject line of an unsolicited e-mail. A proposed change to a Senate anti-spam bill would create a state “do not spam” list targeted against unsolicited commercial e-mails. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is preparing to launch a national “do not spam” list. Like the Michigan proposal, this would allow citizens to register for the list, and penalize spammers who e-mail to them anyway.

There is only one problem with these proposals: Most experts agree they are unlikely to make much difference, as spammers will quickly discover ways to avoid them. Hearings on the Michigan legislation revealed that up to 37 states have passed some kind of anti-spam laws, yet there have been few if any successful prosecutions. Spamming through overseas e-mail addresses is cited as the most likely avoidance technique.

Maintaining a state “do not spam” list would also be expensive. Governments do not have a good track record when it comes to purchasing or operating complex software and computer systems. Individuals and businesses would have to pay to be on the list, and extra costs would be imposed on conscientious marketers who seek to comply with consumer desires. There are also concerns that the “do not spam” lists could be used by spammers to mine for e-mail addresses.

Finally, the Internet is still in its fragile youth, and we should be wary of any heavy handed government interference that could stunt its growth.

Nevertheless, spam has become a real nuisance, and a genuine threat to the usefulness of e-mail. News reports indicate that the volume of unsolicited e-mails is growing by 50 percent per month. Filtering programs are expensive and are not totally effective. Spam is reported to cost some $10 billion a year in lost productivity. The Michigan Manufacturers Association estimates that each spam message a worker has to delete costs his or her company between 70 cents and one dollar in lost productivity.

None of the proposed government solutions would solve the problem, but there is one attractive idea embodied in the Michigan proposals: The notion that all spam should contain the letters “ADV” as the first three characters of the message’s subject field. This would make it simple for recipients to sort incoming e-mails into easily delete-able clusters. Business networks and Internet Service Providers could easily do this for users. What is problematic is giving government a role in enforcing this.

There is a way to effectively control spam without clumsy state intrusion, and without the privacy concerns of massive “do not spam” lists: Let’s do it ourselves. The Internet has been a brilliant creator of bottom-up “spontaneous order” institutions. These percolate up from unspoken, shared conventions and rules adopted voluntarily by millions of users. Spam control is a perfect opportunity for some more of this.

What does “do it ourselves” mean? Simple: If millions of spam recipients refuse to patronize an e-marketer’s product or service unless his communication contains “ADV” in the subject line, spammers would get the message. News travels fast on the ’net, so this could come about quickly. Hundreds of users forwarding messages urging friends and colleagues to demand spammers honor the ADV could snowball into thousands and then millions. At some point a tipping point arrives where it becomes impossible for any product or service to be e-marketed without the “ADV.”

The forwarded messages might look something like this:

Subject:
Join the anti-spam boycott!

Message:
Effective immediately, I refuse to purchase any product or service marketed through spam unless the first three characters of the message subject line are “ADV.” The “ADV” alerts me that this is spam. It makes it easy for me to delete these messages if I choose, or for my ISP to delete them if I so request.

This does not apply to vendors with whom I have a pre-existing relationship. Spammers who include the ADV will get my consideration if they are selling something I want.

Please join the boycott, and pass this message to your friends, urging them to really do it! WE can stop the spam, by taking the profits from disrespectful spammers.

Who knows – maybe this article will start the ball rolling. Anyone reading this has my permission to borrow the text above. There is nothing to stop us from pasting this into an e-mail and sending it to everyone they know. We can stop the spam!

# # #

Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and project manager for MichiganVotes.org, a web-driven legislative database operated as a free public service of the Mackinac Center.