Part 1

On the Internet, which has been touted as the greatest benefit to free expression ever devised, freedom of speech is in danger.

The international network of computers and computer systems has started to bring freedom of speech to corners of the world where if has been effectively suppressed for years. Yet, just as it is poised to bring the benefits of free expression to some of the repressed areas where it is most needed, the Internet is facing a problem that is threatening freedom of speech here in the free world: Unsolicited Bulk Email, often referred to by Internet users as "spam".

Some people and businesses, using software that sends an Email message to tens or hundreds of thousands of addresses simultaneously, are flooding electronic mailboxes with unsolicited junk, discouraging participation in discussion and participation, straining the capacities of the recipients' computing resources and creating traffic that impedes all communication on the Internet. This has already produced results that are having deleterious effects on freedom of speech:

• In response to their customers' complaints about junk mail, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been forced to use filtering or blocking software that prevents mail from being received from particular senders and even entire areas of the Internet. Legitimate communication from these areas is also lost and freedom of speech on the Internet suffers [1 & 8]. Some World Wide Web sites are now attempting to block access to all users whose ISPs allow Unsolicited Bulk Email, regardless of whether that individual is a bulk emailer.

• The volume of junk mail has occasionally slowed down and even crashed computer systems of Internet Service providers [2 & 3].

• Newsgroups, bulletin-board-like systems in which people from around the world can post messages and take part in discussions with others who share similar interests, are scanned by automatic software that picks out the Email addresses of the participants and compiles mailing lists to which to send junk mail. The result has been a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas that had been one of the greatest achievements of the Internet as many people are now unwilling to post any messages to newsgroups for fear of being inundated with junk mail. Some experts are now commonly advising against participation in Internet discussions completely because of the problems Unsolicited Bulk Email causes! [10]

• Automatic software is also used by junk mailers to scan web pages for mailing addresses. Now many people are unwilling to put their Email addresses on web pages for fear of being bombarded with junk mail. This not only reduces the exchange of ideas but makes commerce on the World Wide Web impractical for many people.

• As another means of blocking junk email, many Internet service providers, like America Online, now offer "whitelist" options for their customers, blocking email from any address that's not on a user-specified approved list. If you want to email someone with this option turned on you're out of luck: you'll get a "not accepting mail from you" bounce message.

• Junk mail with maliciously or randomly forged return addresses has virtually shut down individual user's accounts by generating thousands of misdirected complaints [4 & 5]. (Junk mailers typically forge their return addresses in order to prevent complaints from reaching them.)

In short, those who want to force others to accept the "free speech" forced upon them are limiting people's access to the information they actually want to get.

The Reality of Internet Communications: Not a Broadcast Medium

The common use of the term "The Internet" to describe all worldwide communication via the global computer network belies the fact that there are very different types of communication taking place in this environment. Internet Newsgroups, the World Wide Web and Electronic Mail (Email) are as different as a wireless public address microphone, a commercial FM station and a cellular telephone even though all three of these could accurately be called radio communication.

Analogies are frequently made between Internet communications and broadcasting, but the two are different in important and fundamental ways. Broadcast messages originate from a sender and travel on a signal which actually reaches everyone within its range and which is received and detected by those who decide to do so. Internet communications start as data on the computer of the person who created the message, pass through one or more intermediate computers and then are stored on a hard disk on another computer. This stored information resides on this hard disk and is available at a later time by someone who has access to that disk storage area. The overwhelming majority of Internet users pay for their Internet resources, which consist of this hard disk space and its maintenance as well as the Internet address which specifies the digital locations of their data and makes communication possible.

In the case of the World Wide Web, the message creator takes data from his own computer and stores it on his own hard disk space which he leases on a computer belonging to his Internet Service provider. Interested parties can view the data which resides on this disk space at any time.

With Email, on the other hand, the message creator is essentially storing his data on someone else's hard disk; that of the message recipient.

Why Unsolicited Bulk Email is Wrong

The sending of Unsolicited Bulk Email is wrong because it involves the sender making unauthorized use of the recipient's hard disk storage space and Internet resources. It is essentially theft of computing resources that are owned by the recipient. Even the few communist countries still remaining now recognize at least some validity to the concept of ownership of private property. It would be ironic indeed if the United States denied this right to Internet users!

It is wrong because it, unlike other forms of advertising or promotion, forces the recipient to pay the bulk of the cost for its delivery.

It is wrong because it increases the overhead costs of all Internet users, not just the ones who actually receive the messages. Junk mail has passed the point at which this was just a trivial matter, and the volume is still increasing.

It is wrong because, like cancer competing against and eventually overwhelming healthy cells, it can cut off legitimate Email communication. Electronic mailboxes fill with junk to the exclusion of valid messages and various branches of the Internet cut off communication with other branches.

Finally and most importantly, it is wrong because it threatens free speech on the Internet by making users unwilling or unable to participate, cutting off their access to specific areas or driving them off the Internet altogether.

Specious Defenses of Unsolicited Bulk Email

The fallacious "freedom of speech" argument having been dealt with, there are several other defenses of electronic junk mail often cited by its proponents which need to be addressed.

"It's no different from postal junk mail"

Unsolicited Bulk Email is, in fact, fundamentally different from postal junk mail. Whether I rent or own the place at which I live, "my" postal address really doesn't belong to me at all. If I stop paying my rent or mortgage, my postal address will still exist and mail will continue to be delivered there. It will continue to be delivered if I refuse to pay property tax or income tax. If I move away, that address will pass on to someone else even if I do pay my taxes and remain a law abiding citizen. The postal address is, in essence, the property of the community in which I live.

My electronic mail box, by contrast, is my own personal property in every reasonable sense of the term. I pay a monthly fee for the hard disk space and Internet address of which it is comprised. If I stop paying, I will lose it even if I stay at the same physical address. If I move across the country I can keep the same Email address as long as I keep paying for it. It is mine in a very real sense of the word. Because I own it, I have the right to determine what does and does not constitute its appropriate use as well as who may and may not make use of it.

The fee I pay every month for my Internet account is for services I expect to be provided by my ISP, including the exclusion of junk mail to the extent to which they are able to limit it.

"All forms of advertising are actually paid for by the consumer"

This statement overlooks some important facts. The cost of all advertising is certainly borne by consumers, but with email advertising, the recipients pay even if they don't buy what's being advertised! (In the form of additional overhead, even those who don't receive bulk email ads pay for them!) Additionally, most other forms of advertising reduce other costs for consumers of the advertising medium. For example; every ad in a magazine makes that magazine slightly less expensive to print and therefore less expensive to buy. Email advertising actually increases costs for all Internet users.

"Just delete it without reading"

There are several faults with this argument. Firstly, on principal, it is wrong for someone to use my hard disk space and other Internet resources in a manner which I do not approve, regardless of how easy it is for me to delete the data they store there. In practical terms, anyone with a POP email account (the most common type) has to use time and bandwidth to download their mail before being able to determine what is junk and delete it. And many junk mailers are making great efforts to make their mailings look like personal messages so that they will have to be opened and at least partially read before their true nature can be determined (advertisements for pornographic web sites are the most common users of this approach). Bulk email also places additional burdens on Internet backbones and the computers of Internet Service Providers even if no one reads any of it [8].

"Reply here to be removed from our mailing list"

There are at least three ways a "reply to be removed" option can be used:

1. The junk mailer can honestly respect the request and cease to send junk mail.

2. The junk mailer can just ignore the request. (Many "remove" options actually give invalid email addresses, effectively revealing the sender's intention to ignore the request [6].)

3. The junk mailer can actually use the reply option to build a database of valid addresses specifically for future junk mailings. This insidious practice arises from the fact that many of the Email address databases used by junk mailers are extensively polluted with invalid or expired addresses. One way of finding out which are currently active is to send out an ad with a bogus "reply to be removed" option. Any address which sends a reply is obviously a valid one and so can be added to a list for future mailings. Even remove lists which have been compiled with honorable intentions have been later used (sometimes by third parties) as a mailing list for more junk.

Since the recipient can never be certain that the third of these options is not what the sender intends to do, it is foolhardy to reply to any junk mail for any purpose, even a "remove" request.

The "reply to remove" option is unacceptable because it tacitly validates the practice of sending unsolicited bulk Email, because it places the burden on the violated party rather than the trespasser and because, most of the time, it simply doesn't work [7].

"The Internet should be used to promote commerce"

Indeed, the Internet should be used to promote commerce, but there's more to the Internet than just email. There's no point in promoting commerce on the Internet if the form that the promotion takes discourages use of the Internet! If bulk email were stopped tomorrow the World Wide Web would remain wide open and would still be a superior vehicle for commerce because of its capacity for graphics, sound and interactivity as well as lack of intrusiveness to the user (an Internet user only visits a web site of he or she decides to). Bulk email is actually driving commerce off the Internet. Click here to read how.

"It's censorship to ban bulk email"

Wrong. If someone tried to limit or otherwise edit what you wanted to put on your own Internet hard disk space (like your web page, for example), that would be censorship. A ban on bulk email would be a prohibition on your storing certain material on other people's computers; that's not censorship, that's just recognizing everyone's right to control their own property. Everyone should have the freedom to put what they want on their own Internet storage space but not others'.


Although, as explained earlier, Internet communications are fundamentally different from broadcasting in important ways, there are interesting parallels between the current growth of the Internet and the development of radio in the early part of this century. The public is just starting to catch on to a new technology and learn of its possibilities. With explosive growth comes the threat of abuse, and abuses that are left unchecked in the formative stage will have massively deleterious effects in coming years unless action is taken [9].

The early years of radio also provide a parallel with respect to the commercial development of the Internet. Radio could never have grown the way it did without the capital made available by commercialization. The Internet likewise needs the capital provided by commercial uses. The difficulty lies in finding the right balance of commercial activity and the best way of exploiting the medium's unique advantages without abusing it.

The threat of abuse is great in an inherently digital environment like the Internet where computerization can automate and accelerate the process. This is precisely why computerized telephone marketing calls and junk fax messages have been outlawed in the United States. Any legislation concerning junk email will need to address both the sender of the email message and the person or business selling the advertised product or service (if any). This will prevent U.S. businesses from circumventing the law by having their advertisements sent by an offshore Internet Service Provider.

The radio spectrum was divided into segments, each of which was designated for specific uses, some commercial and some not. Even amongst the parts of the spectrum designated for commercial use, the nature of commercialization is controlled. Hence you can hear advertising on an FM radio broadcast but not have to worry about a commercial interrupting a conversation on your cellular telephone.

The various communication modes available on the Internet (Newsgroups, World Wide Web, Email, etc.) can be considered as analogous to the different parts of the radio spectrum. Some clearly need to be protected from exploitation in order to retain their usefulness whereas some are ideally suited to commercial development. The World Wide Web, with its extensive multimedia (graphic and sound) capabilities, is clearly an outstanding medium for commercial use, whereas Email, which is oriented toward text-based person-to-person communication, is not. Defining the parameters for these uses is in no way a restriction on freedom of speech. Advertising and other commercial uses should be encouraged on the World Wide Web. They should be prohibited from email. No one would claim that disallowing commercial messages on marine or citizen's band radio is a constraint on freedom of speech. Prohibiting Unsolicited Bulk Email is just as benign to free speech on the Internet. Indeed, doing so may be the only way to preserve the usefulness of free speech on the Internet.

[1] "Spam Nets Catching Innocents", CNET News, 04 September, 1997 -,4,13966,00.html
[2] "Spam Clogs Netcom Lines", CNET News, 29 April, 1997 -,4,10204,00.html
[3] "Spam Slows WorldNet Mail", CNET News, 16 July, 1997 -,4,12512,00.html
[4] "E-mail Mishap Halts Genealogy Service", Atlanta Constitution, 14 May, 1997
[5] "Net Crime Begs Questions: Who to Call?", CNET News, August 05, 1997 -,4,13141,00.html
[6] "Spam King Issues PC Mike Challenge, then 'Hides' Behind Undeliverable Email Address",, 13 August, 1997 -
[7] "The Spam Scam: Bulk Emailers Promise to Stop Spamming is a Sham!",, 02 August, 1997 -
[8] "Spam Costs Internet Millions Every Month", TechWeb News, 01 April, 1998 -
[9] "Survey Warns of Spam in U.K.", CNET News, 26 April, 1998 -,4,21493,00.html?
[10] "To Avoid Junk E-mail On the Internet, Keep a Low Profile", Christian Science Monitor, 03 June 1998 -

Killing Commerce - Elitism Vs. Democracy- Fight Back

Back to top of page

Copyright © Mark Roberts