- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

This 11-year-old boy enjoys spending time on his family's computer, like about 22 million other American children. The seventh-grader from McLean, who does not want to be identified in this story, maintains his own Web page, accesses Internet resources for homework help and sends e-mails to his friends.

The boy's parents, Mark Johnston and Stella Hetelekidis, have installed a filtering program on their computer, which restricts their son's Web surfing but does not hinder his e-mail accessibility.

"I know he's not visiting any sites he shouldn't be visiting," Mr. Johnston says. "But I'm pretty sure he has gotten some spam. Some of the spam I've gotten on my account, myself, is just terrible. He says his has been just trivial. The porn and stuff I can't abide. That's not acceptable to me, but I don't think he gets that."

Investigation suggests otherwise, however. Spam unsolicited commercial e-mail comprises 30 percent of total electronic-mail volume, says Marten Nelson, a consulting research analyst at Ferris Research Inc., which provides market-research results on e-mail and messaging. About 15 percent to 20 percent of this spam contains adult content inappropriate for children.

Spammers do not necessarily target children, Mr. Nelson says.

"Often, they don't even know either the sex or age of their targets but will simply blast spam messages to a list of millions of e-mail addresses," he says. "Hence, there is a high probability that children will receive it."

Spam offerings might range from the somewhat innocuous but still inappropriate "Burn Up to 14 Lbs in One Week," for example, to "Brittany Spears & Jenna Jameson Caught Kissing at Jenna's Porn Party," a message that urges recipients to click to see the videotaped act.

The latter is the sort of missive making its way around the Internet in high numbers. A June 2000 study of children's online behavior by social scientists at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire indicated that one-quarter of the children surveyed received an unwanted exposure to pictures of naked people or people having sex. The study, which surveyed 1,501 youths ages 10 to 17 who use the Internet regularly, was funded by Congress through a grant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The NCMEC in early September added a new category to its Cyber Tipline, which handles leads about the sexual exploitation of children. The category is labeled "unsolicited obscene material sent to a child."

"We get about 1,000 leads a week on all the types of incidents we handle [at the Cyber Tipline]," says Kathy Free, program manager in the exploited child unit.

"Probably 90 percent is on child pornography; the next highest category is online enticement, and next is the obscene material category." At its worst, spam can be a danger, "whether it's drugs, porn or meeting with a pedophile," says Robin Raskin, a former editor at PC Magazine who now serves as a speaker and consultant known as the "Internet Mom."

Ms. Raskin says she recently looked into her 16-year-old son's electronic mailbox his Internet service provider is one of the giants in the industry and found that 25 percent of the content was spam.

"Most of it was sexual or Viagra or illegal drugs," says Ms. Raskin, who is working on a book titled "They've Got Mail, You've Got Trouble," which will offer advice for parents on raising digital-savvy children.

"The spammers want eyeballs on the site it doesn't matter if it's a dog's eyeball," she says. "I think this constant bombardment by junk is a horrible thing to do to young children."

John Mozena is not a child, but he does not want his eyeballs to do spammers any favors. A Detroit public relations account manager by day, Mr. Mozena spends his off-hours as a vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), an Internet-based, nonprofit organization that advocates for legislative, regulatory and legal solutions to spam.

He explains ways that spammers ply their trade: "Some will buy lists from companies that maintain lists that are purported to be people who would be interested in receiving your information. Anytime your e-mail address is out there publicly on the Internet on a Web page, on a newsgroup, in a public chat room anytime that other people can see your e-mail address on the Internet, spammers can see it, as well. They trade it with each other, they sell it to each other, they never let it go."

There really is no way to stop an e-mail address's circulation, agrees Laura Atkins, president of the San Francisco-based Spamcon Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to maintain e-mail as a productive communication medium.

"So is there any way to stop inappropriate spam from getting to your kids? If I had the answer to that, I'd be rich," Ms. Atkins says.

While no current federal law prohibits spam, the Federal Trade Commission wields its FTC Act which prohibits deceptive and unfair practices in any medium in its arsenal to protect the public, FTC spokesman Brian Huseman says.

The FTC is litigating a case brought earlier this year in which children received e-mail announcing that the recipients had won a Playstation 2. Clicking on the links eventually led to a porn site, which downloaded a program that disconnected the modem from the recipient's computer, then dialed an international telephone number that charged $3.99 per minute to the recipient's telephone bill.

"This was one of the more egregious examples we have seen," says Mr. Huseman, a staff attorney who works on spam and Internet-fraud issues. "Thousands of people lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lots of children opened up this message."

A number of states Maryland and Virginia among them have enacted laws that address the problem of unsolicited commercial e-mail. Actions include prohibiting spammers from distributing electronic mail that contains false or misleading information in the subject line or sending unsolicited bulk e-mail containing falsified routing information.

"But in the states where there are laws, many have not been tested," says Ms. Atkins of the Spamcon Foundation. "In some states, only the attorney general can prosecute there is no private right of action and cases have not yet been brought. So there's no incentive by spammers to follow the law because it's not enforced."

Several bipartisan bills are pending that could add torque to a spam hammer.

They include SB630, which would require unsolicited commercial e-mail messages to be labeled and include opt-out instructions and would prohibit deceptive subject lines and false headers. Introduced by Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, among others, the bill contains a provision that would prohibit the use of e-mail addresses harvested from Web sites in violation of posted restrictions.

HR1017 introduced by Reps. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican; Lamar Smith, Texas Republican; and Rick Boucher, Virginia Democrat would amend federal computer crime laws to make it illegal to send unsolicited bulk e-mail messages containing a false sender address or header, or to distribute software designed for this purpose.

These motions nip at the deceptive-practices side of spam, but another insult obscenity directed toward a child is much more difficult to nail down.

At the federal level, no anti-obscenity act to date has held up under First Amendment scrutiny. Therefore, the only recourse by which to challenge inappropriate spam directed at minors is to use the three-pronged test from the Miller vs. California precedent proving a specific level of obscenity. That 1973 case ruled that material is obscene if the average person applying contemporary community standards finds the material to be patently offensive and lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

But will laws from any angle really serve as the cornerstones to knock spam out of the electronic mailboxes of American children?

That remains to be seen, primarily because spammers generally are not likely to be law-abiding citizens, says Adam Boettiger, founder and president of email911.com, a Portland, Ore.-based company that teaches individual and business users how to better manage their e-mail accounts.

"If additional U.S. laws are enacted, yes, it is a step in the right direction," Mr. Boettiger says. "But what we'll most likely see is an increase in spammers outsourcing their mailings to rogue companies operating outside the United States in Asia or other countries where not only are our laws nearly impossible to enforce, but local governments are unlikely to care."

Also, he doubts that ordinary citizens actually will go through the arduous process of filing a civil lawsuit if there is even a remote chance losing the case might result in a substantial loss of household income.

He says effective legislation must address the issue of cost-shifting, as well. Cost-shifting, in essence, he continues, means that the Internet service providers, and in turn their customers the recipients of spam are absorbing much of the spammers' marketing costs.

One solution to cost-shifting, says Mr. Boettiger, is to give end users an "opt-in" choice in which the users request information on specific topics from their Internet service provider and the advertiser pays the ISP a fee to do the mailing. Although opt-in e-mail marking is available now, he says, it is not cheap.

"But sadly, none of the legislatiopn that I've seen addresses the problem from an opt-in standpoint," he says. "If all of the costs related to spam mailings were incurred solely by the spammer sending the mailing, there would be no spam problem because the cost of doing a mailing would be higher than the number of penis enlargers that the mailing sold."

If adults need to ask why it would be bad for a child to see explicit pictures of women having sex with farm animals or to be told that they need to increase the size of their breasts or their penis size, "then clearly you don't have any children of your own," says Mr. Boettiger, the father of three children age 11 and younger.

"There's enough sex and violence in the media and entertainment industry that bombard our children every day. Do we really want to allow something that can reach our children's eyes so directly, right in their e-mail inbox especially when we have the ability to prevent it from happening?"

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