Ninety-seven senators can be wrong

The vote in your United States Senate was 97 to 0 – generally the kind of bipartisan unanimity reserved for proclamations supporting National Bran Muffin Month and the like.

So you might think that 97 senators all in agreement on a particular issue couldn’t possibly be wrong, right?

Silly you.

In this case, the 97 like-minded lawmakers were lined up behind a piece of anti-spam legislation called Can Spam that started out promising a modicum of relief from junk e-mail but then ran headlong into the propeller blades of Washington politics.

Oh, proponents still argue that the legislation is better than doing nothing. And that old bromide might be comforting if not for this nagging fact: The legislation is not better than doing nothing – it’s a far sight worse – unless you happen to be a spammer or a corporate marketing executive who’s been itching to become one.

The House of Representatives is expected to take up its own anti-spam legislation any moment now, and if that body demonstrates the same paucity of wisdom and backbone as the Senate – as is likely – President Bush can look forward to seeing the nation’s first anti-spam legislation reach his desk. He shouldn’t sign it, but he will.

That there is good to be found in the legislation matters little. Can Spam is fatally flawed for a variety of reasons, but we’ll concentrate here on only one.

By embracing opt-out as the official government-approved method of telling a spammer to stop spamming, the legislation essentially gives everyone permission to spam everyone else at least once.

You say everyone can already do that? True enough, but few legitimate businesses dare, given the stigma attached to doing so. That is bound to change the moment this legislation becomes law.

And while it’s said that the preferred method of true spam fighters – opt-in – is politically a non-starter, that doesn’t make opt-out the best fallback position. Maintaining the status quo would be far better.

Imagine the confusion for end users – particularly the less technically savvy – who have been told for years that responding to opt-out requests is a fool’s errand that only confirms to spammers that they have reached an active e-mail address. This has been solid advice, and it’s been taken to heart by many.

If opt-out becomes legally sanctioned, what does the advice become now?

Sure, an Amazon, Sears or Network World would do their best to respect your opt-out request. But what of the scammers and fly-by-nighters? Are we seriously expecting end users to differentiate between the two?

Once opt-out receives the government seal of approval, your options in dealing with spam become: a) Spend the time necessary to convey your opt-out wishes to the sender of each and every piece (and say so long to your morning); or b) Go on hitting the delete key as you do now and live with the consequences of having granted tacit permission for the spammers to send you more junk.

If a companion bill to Can Spam does pass the House and gets reconciled with the Senate version, you can bet the president’s Texas ranch that he will sign it into law – no matter what details bedevil the thing. This embattled president isn’t about to stand in the way of a law that’s been widely peddled as an answer to spam.

The best-case scenario is that nothing emerges from the House but high hopes and hot air, or that House-Senate conferees find no acceptable compromise. If Congress is good at anything, it is inaction, so such a scenario is not far-fetched.

Keeping any bill from the president’s desk might be the best hope we have.