By Dakota Smith
Friday, April 25, 2003
More e-mail inboxes are flooded with sexually explicit spam, yet most agree little can be done to limit the annoyance. To date, lawmakers, lobby groups and Internet service providers have not be able to reach agreement on preventative tactics.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Toilet peep cams, "girl on girl action," offers for Viagra-type pills: Not only is unsolicited e-mail with adult content spam becoming more prevalent, the e-mails are also increasingly explicit, often containing graphic, pornographic photos.
Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, says he receives on average three complaints a day regarding sexually explicit spam. Most offensive to people, according to Berkowitz, is spam that invites users to watch "real rapes."
Additionally, most of the complaints Berkowitz receives come from parents who have discovered that their children have viewed the spam.
"People forward the e-mails, asking 'What can be done about this?'" says Berkowitz.
But the e-mails, as well as Web sites featuring women being raped and killed, are legal. Unless there is a minor involved, or the rape scenario is real, no law is being broken.
Overall, spam accounts for 40 percent of all e-mail, according to Brightmail Inc., an anti-spam software company. One out of 10 e-mails is an adult-content spam (defined as anything with sexually explicit content or selling adult products).
Brightmail also says the volume of adult spam has steadily increased in the last two years. According to the company, 14 percent of spam was adult in nature for the month of January 2003, compared to 5 percent in January 2002 and 2 percent in January 2001.
For spammers, nicknamed "bottom feeders" by the technology community, sending out the smut is a lucrative business.
Adult Web sites often purchase e-mail lists from a third party, then send out unsolicited e-mails promoting a Web site or product. The cost to the Web site is the same if they send out one or 10,000 e-mails, so if only a percentage of users sign up to a Web site or the buy the product, the adult Web site will still bag a profit.
"People wouldn't be doing this if there wasn't a lot of money to be made," says Jay Kopita, editor of YNOTmasters.com, a newsletter for operators of adult Web sites. "I've heard of instances where a site will buy an e-mail list for $1,000, send out a bulk e-mail and bring back $5,000 in sales."
One of the most pervasive types of spam e-mail is advertisements for products to increase penis size. With such headers as "Increase Her Pleasure" and "Do It and Have More Fun" the barrage of advertisements for such products can be annoying to those without an interest in the subject.
This reporter, for example, has received information about Herbal Vivid, a product sold from Herbalo, a Chatsworth, California-based company.
"We are against spamming," says Scott Schalin, chief executive officer of Herbalo, who blames affiliates, other adult Web sites, for sending out e-mails advertising Herbal Vivid.
Only a small percentage of sales come from spammers sending traffic to his site, according to Schalin. Still, affiliates who do spam (and Schalin maintains it's difficult to monitor who does) receive 40 percent cut of each sale.
Schalin says that he is not bothered by the fact that teen-agers or children may be viewing information about his penis-enhancing product.
"Ours is strictly a medical product," says Schalin. "I'm less concerned about children reading our stuff than I would be if they were reading stuff sent from a pornographic site."
To date, Congress hasn't passed any federal laws that would regulate or ban all spam, largely because of aggressive lobbying by the direct marketing community.
While 26 states have laws that put restrictions on all spam, only a handful of states have addressed sex-spam, requiring marketers to put the word "Adult" in the header of an adult-content e-mail.
Indeed, few lawmakers have made the pornographic nature of the spam a central issue in proposed bills that would fight the barrage of unsolicited e-mail.
Instead, the spam bills that have been proposed have focused largely on the cost of spam--the amount businesses spend to fight spam---and the loss of worker productivity as a result of having to click and delete e-mails.
"Adult content spam gets sort of lost in the general complaints about spam," says Les Seagraves, chief privacy officer at Internet service provider Earthlink, which like AOL and other Internet service providers, prohibits spam.
"It's always a sub-topic," adds Seagraves. "Some legislation has mentioned it, but I think adult spam gets overshadowed by the larger issue, which is just that people hate spam."
Congress' record in regulating indecency on the Internet in general has been pretty dismal, points out David E. Sorkin, a professor of technology and privacy law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and publisher of the Web site spamlaws.com.
Sorkin believes legislators are wary of building spam bills around issues of indecency.
"If they do that, they realize is that they are asking for a broader constitutional challenge," says Sorkin.
Already, groups like Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have cried censorship at most federal efforts to regulate spam.
Meanwhile, ultra-conservative groups, such as Concerned Women for America, are the ones lobbying Congress and speaking out against explicit spam as part of their campaigns to ban all hard-core pornography.
The liberal Electronic Privacy Information Center's deputy council Chris Hoofnagle takes the position that it's dangerous to ban, or fine (as one legislative bill proposed) marketers from sending e-mails that had the word "sex" in the header.
"There is the chance that an employee working at a domestic violence center, for instance, wouldn't receive an important e-mail," says Hoofnagle. Electronic Privacy Information Center would like to see users forced to opt-in to spam, meaning they'd have to willingly sign up to receive e-mail from marketers.
Additionally, as some bills currently being put forth in Congress propose, they'd like to see all marketers required to put the word "Advertisement" in the header of their e-mails.
Law professor Sorkin is opposed to this strategy, saying that forcing marketers announce the e-mail as an advertisement would only legitimize spam, essentially providing tacit approval for marketers to send out unsolicited e-mail.
"You'd see a rise in spam," predicts Sorkin. "Instead of 50 e-mails a day, you'd get 5,000."
Sorkin believes a technical solution, such as increased filtering, as well as tougher state laws are the answer, but is pessimistic that legislators, lobbyists and the Internet service providers could devise a law that all could agree to.
"There really is no compromise that any of these groups would even grudgingly accept," says Sorkin.
Dakota Smith is a freelance writer in New York.
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