The Enduring Saga of Spam

Tom Hymes
I've been thinking about spam a lot lately, especially porn spam, even though I hardly get it anymore. At my former job, I got lots of it despite layers of filtering at both the computer and server levels. My reaction to receiving unsolicited porn varied from slightly bothered to seething outrage, but mostly I felt that the sender should have known better; why would anyone want to piss off someone who is in a position to help him or her? It didn't matter that no conscious decision to target me had probably ever been made. I believed then — and still do — that stupid marketing is on par with fraudulent marketing.

I don't receive porn spam through my Free Speech Coalition email, but my relationship to the abstract and actual realities of sexually explicit email has only deepened and become more complicated as I morph into a full-time public spokesperson for the industry. Illegal or reckless behavior about which I used to have a dispassionate interest has become something with which I am now often personally associated with. That it comes with the job makes it no less irritating.

The thing about porn spam, of course, is the "kid" factor and most of the really serious governmental challenges facing the industry utilize it. In fact, the Lincoln bill, the Pence Amendment, 2257, .XXX, the Utah/Michigan registries, the Senate indecency hearings and the Third Way Report all focus on kids being marketed to or being allowed access to material that the government has deemed harmful to minors and from which it claims a compelling interest to protect them. We could argue all day about whether adult content is in fact intrinsically harmful to minors or anyone else, but the issue as a focal point of public concern is undeniable and it is my job to field an insane amount of media queries about it.

I am also personally targeted. One right-wing columnist has urged his readers to email or call me to register disgust with our decision to sue Utah over their so-called Child Protection Registry, a Do-Not-Email list that is meant to stop emailed porn (and other goods and services unlawful for minors). The Registry is in reality a tax on legitimate email marketers that completely flaunts federal law in the form of the Can-Spam Act, but that fact will not prevent the usual media attention on the whole issue of unsolicited commercial email, especially the sexually explicit ones. I will have to speak many times to the issue of industry practices and how and whether it polices itself. This, of course, goes for many other perceived problems with the industry, but spam is a particularly proactive practice, and when it goes bad and busts are made and heavy fines levied, one is often reduced to shaking one's head and referring halfheartedly to anonymous "bad apples."

I would rather not have to do that. I would rather be able to point to the stats and declare unequivocally that porn spam has in fact decreased dramatically over the past several years to the low- to mid-single digits and is no longer the societal scourge the religious right and certain virtuous congresspersons would have us believe. I have been doing that and I will continue to do so, but make no mistake, those who send unsolicited porn spam that violates clearly defined Can-Spam provisions or allow their affiliates to do so, are every bit my nemeses as those who would use the practice to try to destroy this industry.