Spam, spam, spam," muttered the Viking characters on an old Monty Python TV show, drowning out everybody's conversation. That's thought to be the origin of the use of the word "spam" for unwanted e-mail, those pesky solicitations considered as Internet junk.
In fact, recent studies show a 200 to 400 percent increase in spam in just the past year. As more people sign on to the information superhighway, more lists of e-mail addresses are being traded and more businesses see dollars in massive e-mail launches to potential customers.
Efforts to combat this onslaught may be just in time. Most spam is now generated by a limited number of individuals and companies. But more credit-card solicitations, for example, may be on their way to computer users' inboxes.
Three bills in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate would stem online pitches. One bill, the "Unsolicited Electronic E-mail Act" passed unanimously out of the energy and commerce committee in the House last week.
Among its provisions: Spammers would face criminal and civil penalties up to $50,000 if they continue to send e-mail after a recipient asks them to stop by sending a request back to the "spammer." That return e-mail address must be a real one.
Anti-spammers would rather give individuals and companies the ability to declare themselves "spam free" zones, or be able to "opt in" before receiving any spam.
As these bills work their way through Congress, legislators will need to take a close look at the consequences of both "opt in" and "opt out" options, and strike a reasonable balance.
Those worried about government interference with the Internet can mostly put their fears aside. These spam bills simply are a move to enforce basic property rights.
Why is sending spam different than sending unsolicited catalogs by mail? Spam costs the consumer money to maintain the resources that spammers use. As spam volume grows, e-mail providers have to buy more servers and hire more people to handle the load. One European Commission study says spam costs Internet subscribers $9.4 billion worldwide per year.
Nonetheless, government should be careful when and how it decides to regulate what's now become the nation's new (albeit virtual) public space.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor