Think tanks wrap-up III

April 28, 2003 at 4:15 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 28 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the third of three wrap-ups for April 28. Contents: Anti-span technology; particulant air pollution; fate of Iraqi oil business.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute

(CEI is a conservative, free-market think tank that supports principles of free enterprise and limited government, opposes government regulation, and actively engages in public policy debate.)

C:\Spin: Technology, not regulation, takes a byte out of spam

By Hanah Metchis

WASHINGTON -- There are few things in this world that all reasonable people agree on. Some are foundational to society: murder is bad. Others are hard-wired: baby animals are cute. And there's this one: e-mail spam is annoying, or worse.

Congress is hoping to regulate spam away. Two bills proposed this year address the problem, and others are in the works. The first is the Computer Owners' Bill of Rights, which would create a national "do not e-mail" list. Senders of unsolicited marketing e-mail would have to make sure none of these people are on their mailing list. The second bill is the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN SPAM Act). This bill bans many methods used by spammers. Some provisions are overbroad (what is a "misleading" subject line?). Others address real wrongs, such as falsified headers and fake opt-out mechanisms. But no new law will stop spam, or even reduce it to manageable levels.

The problem of spam starts with the fact that it's very easy for spammers to hide their true identities and contact information. When e-mail headers are forged, it is difficult to discover who actually sent the e-mail. Police or private companies contemplating a lawsuit must hire experts to trace the e-mail to its source. Once a spammer is found, local police must often pursue him out of state, or even to foreign countries. Certain countries, such as China, are known for being "spam havens" where law enforcement officials are reluctant to cooperate with investigations. Because of these difficulties, anti-spam laws are rarely enforced.

Congress often passes laws knowing that there will be far more offenders than prosecutions, hoping that severe penalties will act as a deterrent. But research has shown that the likelihood of being caught is far more important to criminals than the possible penalties. That is, a law that is effectively enforced but carries a light penalty will be a much better deterrent than a law with a heavy penalty that is rarely enforced.

Penalties for spamming have not, in fact, deterred spammers. Twenty-nine states have passed anti-spam legislation, and fraudulent advertising is illegal regardless of the medium through which it's distributed. And yet, because these laws are not regularly enforced, the amount of spam is constantly growing.

A "do not e-mail list" law is an even worse solution. A few unethical spammers could turn such a list into an absolute nightmare. It would be a jackpot of confirmed, legitimate e-mail addresses that are used by real people. The list would have to be publicly available, so spammers could remove the registered addresses from their mailing lists. Spammers could, instead, purposely use those addresses for their mailings.

In the past, most technological solutions to spam have been either heavy-handed, like blacklists that block lots of non-spam e-mail, or ineffective, like word-based filtering systems. But spam is an increasingly serious problem for ISP's and businesses, now accounting for 40 percent of e-mail traffic, double its level six months ago. With such a huge rate of growth, it's not surprising that innovation in technological anti-spam solutions is taking off at incredible rates.

There will never be a "silver bullet" solution. Still, many people are benefiting from Bayesian filters that learn to recognize spam based on the user's decisions, or challenge-response systems that verify a message was sent by a real person, not a bulk mail program. For ISP's, there are products with prioritization methods to delay spam like bulk postal mail, bond posting to identify legitimate bulk mailers and hold them accountable, and processes that trick spammers into thinking they have the wrong address.

This evolving variety of approaches is more likely to alleviate the problem than Congressional solutions. Laws will only be effective with better enforcement. Technological solutions may well be more efficient and less expensive.

(Hanah Metchis is a research associate for the Project on Technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.)

Particulate air pollution: weighing the risks

By Joel Schwartz

WASHINGTON -- America's air quality has vastly improved in recent decades due to progressive emission reductions from industrial facilities and motor vehicles. The country achieved this success despite substantial increases in population, automobile travel and energy production.

Air pollution will continue to decline, both because more recent vehicle models start out cleaner and stay cleaner as they age than earlier ones, and also because already-adopted standards for new vehicles and existing power plants and industrial facilities will come into effect in the next few years.

Nonetheless, both the Bush administration and congressional Democrats have proposed sweeping new measures to further crack down on power plant emissions. The administration's Clear Skies Initiative and a more stringent Democratic alternative are largely justified by claims that current levels of particulate matter, or PM, pose a serious public health threat. Supporters of these bills promise substantial benefits from additional PM reductions.

Nevertheless, the benefit claims for PM reductions rest on a weak foundation. The Environmental Protection Agency based its new annual fine PM standard, PM2.5, which refers to airborne particles with diameters of less than 2.5 microns, on a study known as the American Cancer Society study of PM and mortality, which assessed the association between the risk of death between 1982 and 1998 and PM2.5 levels in dozens of American cities.

Although the ACS study reported an association between PM and mortality, some odd features of the ACS results suggest that PM is not the culprit. For example, according to the ACS results, PM increased mortality in men, but not women; in those with no more than a high school degree, but not those with at least some college education; in former-smokers, but not current- or never-smokers; and in those who said they were moderately active, but not those who said they were very active or sedentary.

These odd variations in the relationship between PM2.5 and mortality seem biologically implausible. Even more surprising, the ACS study reported that higher PM2.5 levels were not associated with an increased risk of mortality due to respiratory disease; a surprising finding, given that PM would be expected to exert its effects through the respiratory system.

EPA also ignored the results of another epidemiologic study that found no effect of PM2.5 on mortality in a cohort of veterans with high blood pressure, even though this relatively unhealthy cohort should have been more susceptible to the effects of pollution than the general population. The evidence therefore suggests that the existing annual standard for PM2.5 is unnecessarily stringent. Attaining the standard will be expensive, but is unlikely to improve public health.

EPA also promulgated a standard for daily PM2.5 levels. Hardly any areas exceed this standard, making it moot for policy purposes. Nevertheless, the epidemiology of short-term PM exposure and mortality suffers from deficiencies that call into question the extent to which typical short-term increases in PM levels can increase mortality.

Sulfate PM -- the type of PM caused by coal power plant emissions -- is a particularly implausible culprit as a cause of increased mortality. Ammonium sulfate, the main form of sulfate PM, is used as an inactive control substance in human studies assessing the health effects of inhaling acidic aerosols. Inhaled magnesium sulfate is even used therapeutically to reduce airway constriction in asthmatics. Sulfate is also naturally present in bodily fluids at levels many times the amount that could be inhaled from air pollution.

The evidence suggests that exposure to PM at current levels likely has little or no effect on mortality in most of the United States. Regardless, processes already set in motion guarantee substantial PM reductions in coming years.

Additional near-term reductions in PM are probably best achieved by dealing with the stock of high-polluting older vehicles that account for a substantial portion of ambient PM levels in metropolitan areas. This flexible, more cost-effective approach is far more likely to result in net public health benefits than other proposals that are the focus of current legislative and regulatory activity and debate.

The Institute for Public Accuracy

(The IPA is a nationwide consortium of policy researchers that seeks to broaden public discourse by gaining media access for experts whose perspectives are often overshadowed by major think tanks and other influential institutions.)

Will the oil of Iraq belong to the Iraqi people?

WASHINGTON -- Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported on U.S. government plans to restructure Iraq's oil industry. These plans, which would replace the oil ministry with a U.S. corporate model, are expected to be announced this week. The Journal reports that the Iraqi oil industry will be overseen by an "advisory board." The board is slated to be headed by Philip Carroll, an American who is a former chief executive of Shell Oil, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch/Shell Group.

-- Michael Renner, author of the report "Post-Saddam Iraq: Linchpin of a New Oil Order."

"There's no shortage of Iraqis who know how to run the oil industry, so why exactly do you need someone like Carroll? Competing factions within the administration are jockeying to determine the specifics of the industry's future. But it's likely that Iraqi oil is headed toward de facto privatization -- a scheme that puts real control in the hands of the oil multinationals."

-- Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer.

"This may not have been a war about oil in the narrowest, most literal sense -- its context is one of broad imperial ambition. But oil would still rank high on any list of reasons. It's been widely noted that the U.S. military guarded the oil ministry while the rest of Baghdad sank into chaos. Is that a taste of what the administration has in mind for the whole country? Heavily guarded oilfields run by Americans while the rest of Iraq can go to hell?"

-- Francis Boyle, professor of law at the University of Illinois and author of "Foundations of World Order."

"The U.N. Security Council must continue to control Iraq's oil and convert the proceeds into a trust fund that it will administer for the benefit of the Iraqi people in accordance with the international laws of belligerent occupation. Otherwise, the Bush administration and its private sector cronies will loot Iraq's oil fields, exploit the Iraqi people, and mortgage their future by setting up a puppet government ..."

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