Those 200-year-old words of Edmund Burke could not have been more apt this month when Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., unveiled a poll showing 75 percent of Americans support the creation of a national "Do Not Spam" registry modeled on the Federal Trade Commission's popular "Do Not Call" list. The Senate followed suit by passing legislation with provisions along the same lines.
Anyone with an e-mail account has likely received unsolicited e-mail, or "spam," touting everything from herbal supplements to enlargement of certain body parts. At its most harmless, it's annoying, and at its worst, it threatens to disrupt business over the Internet or to put pornography in front of your children. There is no question that spam is a real problem, and it is no surprise that Americans want a solution, and they want it yesterday.
It's also no surprise that at first glance a Do Not Spam registry seems like a good idea. Over 50 million telephone numbers were submitted to the Do Not Call list in just a few months' time, and by most accounts, it's been a success. If such a list keeps telemarketers from interrupting dinner, why wouldn't it keep spammers from filling our in-boxes with smut?
The answer lies in the fact that telemarketing calls and spam are not the same thing. Telemarketers are mostly law-abiding businesses, whereas spammers are often fly-by-night operations using deceptive subject lines and false e-mail addresses to circumvent filters and existing laws.
If spammers had any respect for the recipient's wishes or for existing law, they wouldn't be using fake e-mail addresses and subject headings like "I tried calling you last night" for e-mails offering naked cheerleaders. These fine citizens would surely ignore a Do Not Spam registry just as they ignore the law now.
Like many prohibitive laws, a Do Not Spam registry would only restrict the activities of legitimate businesses who market to you via e-mail, most of whom already offer the opportunity to opt out.
These businesses, already fulfilling their moral responsibility, would now have to shoulder the added regulatory burden of incessantly matching their e-mailing lists to the new federal list. Meanwhile, illegitimate spammers would be spamming away.
It gets even worse.
Telemarketers don't have to work very hard to obtain numbers -- look at how thick the average phonebook is. There is no comparable directory of e-mail addresses, so spammers purchase piecemeal lists from each other, harvest addresses from Web sites and chat rooms or send to randomly generated e-mail addresses in "dictionary attacks."
Imagine if the federal government puts together one comprehensive list of millions upon millions of valid, working e-mail addresses. How long before a sophisticated spammer obtains such a list from the FTC under the guise of compliance with the new law, but then instead begins selling it to other spammers all over the world? What a goldmine for spammers -- a way to exponentially increase their reach at taxpayer expense!
The fact that large numbers of illegitimate spammers are based overseas and use continually changing, untraceable addresses further erodes the effectiveness of a Do Not Spam list. If you can't identify the sender, how do you prosecute a violation of the list? Again, only the legitimate businesses that identify themselves and use honest subject headings would be subject to enforcement under the list.
The real solution to spam is a cooperative effort by government, business and e-mail users. The federal government needs to be serious about enforcement, and there are several excellent bills to this effect -- such as S. 877 (the CAN SPAM Act) in the Senate and H.R. 2214 (the Reduction in Distribution of Spam Act) in the House -- currently moving through Congress.
Meanwhile, Internet service providers and software firms need to continue developing technologies to stop spam before it reaches your e-mail box, and to aggressively pursue those that use their systems for illegitimate advertising. So far, they've demonstrated their willingness to do so. E-mail users need to take advantage of the anti-spam tools already available to them.
A Do Not Spam list is definitely a popular idea, but in practice it would likely result in more spam, not less. In a republic we ideally elect politicians to see past popular passions and to enact policies that work. There's certainly no shortage of opinions in America, but when it comes to spam, what we could use in Washington is a little judgment.
-- Grover G. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform, a non-partisan citizens lobby group. Tom Readmond is ATR's manager of federal affairs.
-- United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues.