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Spam and the State

June 5, 2003


Here is my dilemma. I, like millions of others, detest spam. I have three functioning email addresses and the two main ones receive nearly 80% spam.

Every time I log on (which I do about seven times daily), I first delete about eight of these nearly useless posts, read one or two that are of some interest, and go on to those that are actually addressed to me personally. And the next time it is no different. It's more annoying than junk mail and far more voluminous.

Yet I don't want government to do anything about it at all. Sure, I'd like to be rid of the spam deposited so predictably now in my email bins, there's no denying that. But do I want some armed people to regiment the folks who are sending it to me? No.

The reason is simple. They haven't invaded my territory, not really. The problem is, in fact, that the Internet and all its adjacent elements aren't anyone's territory but belong to us all, all at once. So those people spreading spam have no less a moral authority to fill up my bin than I do filling up the bins of those people whose addresses I can get a hold of for such a purpose.

In fact I often do look up people's email addresses, when I have heard them on radio or seen them on TV or read their work in some publication, so I can sound off to them about what I think of their ideas. And I like that I am able to do that. Probably some of those folks to whom I send my responses regard the posts from me as, well, spam.

The fact is that we have no clear property rights in cyberspace, or at least not yet. When something close to property rights does emerge, such as when one buys a spot on AOL or accepts a freebie from MSN, then we will be ready to think about how one might keep out intruders, uninvited email posters. But even that is somewhat confusing.

What exactly do I rent or buy when I obtain one of these spots on Yahoo or Hotmail or wherever?  It's not like renting or buying some dwelling, where an intruder or trespasser can be clearly identified and, thus, put on notice that any intrusion or trespass will be met with forceful resistance. I "sign" a contract that entitles me to no legal remedy at all.

Until after the legal system gets clear on just what it is to own cyberspace, so it can be clear on what it is to invade such space and the like, I prefer the maddening anarchy we have about us to any kind of government dictatorship that imposes a one-size-fits-all pseudosolution to the spam problem.

Once again, I ask, who are these legislators to pretend to know THE solution to this problem? They and their ilk haven't managed to deal with any of these matters successfully. The parks, forests, beaches and roads that are under public management all demonstrate without any reasonable doubt the colossal ineptness of these folks, an ineptness that isn't merely one of prevalent bureaucratic incompetence but systematic, unavoidable mismanagement.

Into the midst of the current rather peaceful if very annoying and, yes, time consuming anarchy surrounding the spam phenomenon, the last thing we need is for a bunch of know-it-all politicians to feign some kind of solution.

All we can know for sure is that if there is a solution, the market will find it long before the politicians will. Spam filters have dramatically diminished the problem relative to what it would otherwise be, and these have been provided solely by the pressures of commerce. The efforts to certify ISPs and police the web for spammers, entirely a private undertaking, are ongoing. ISPs are looking into verification systems for incoming and outgoing mail. The methods that work will last and those that do not will be discarded.

There is simply no way for the political class, which, unlike commercial vendors, has no financial stake in the outcome of the spam wars, to find the proper solution. And there is historical precedence showing that my concerns are justified. Back in the 1920s the electromagnetic spectrum, within which radio and later television signals would traverse, had been an unruly public realm.

Eventually the Navy, which was beginning to utilize radio for serious purposes, became exasperated and asked the government to come up with some kind of principle of allocation, so it'd be possible to tell who may use one frequency, who another. Instead of waiting for some sensible development of property rights, the government nationalized the "ether," that fictional entity that had been thought to exist but was later identified as actually a realm or spectrum.

Henceforth the feds owned the broadcast medium and promptly made a total mess of things from which we are still recovering. (One element of that mess was to grant near monopolies to ABC, NBC and CBS, license radio stations and for all intents and purposes destroy any semblance of genuine free expression on the airways.)

So, let us not have these guys create yet another mess, now in cyberspace, just because we are irritated with how things are going now with spam. Let's have some patience. If we do not, we will probably see the politicians screw things up again, with that ancient excuse that someone needs to do something. Well, perhaps not. Not just yet!


Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. You may send him MAIL and view his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive


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