April 29, 2003
Spam and speech
I have to admit that I don't understand the hysteria about spam. I probably get as much as anyone and it irritates me too--not to mention challenges my manhood on an almost hourly basis (why do they think I need those pills?) I want to stop it and support the many, many efforts to do so. But email is a form of speech and thereby a right and something we should tamper with only with the utmost of caution. So it baffles me that so many people are ready to embrace a state solution and jeopardize speech rights for the sake of what is, in the end, an inconvenience. (Yes, I know spam also costs people money. So does waiting in traffic while Critical Mass rides by. We all pay a cost so that others may be free to speak their mind.) The same people who are fanatical about the evils of the Patriot Act because it expands government's ability to observe our email seem to be more than happy to have the government DICTATE what we can and cannot email in the first place! Now Zoe Lofgren and Larry Lessig want the state to pay people to bounty hunt spammers. This is a vital state interest? It's absolutely stunning to me.
Now I know what you are thinking. This is only for COMMERCIAL emails. And it is only for UNSOLICITED emails. Well that's all well and good, and if there were a perfect way to determine what is spam and what is not, then I'd have less of a problem. But there isn't and never will be (much spam is in the eye of the beholder)--and when we ask the government to decide what is spam and what isn't, we are opening the door infringement of our free speech rights. Do you really want the state to determine whether your email to friends and co-workers asking them to buy a box of your daughter's Girl Scout cookies is spam or not? Hey it's commercial and unsolicited! Perhaps the government will make the right call and not pay a bounty hunter big bucks for narcing on this behavior, but do you really want to cede them this right? For every problem I point out, I'm aware that statists have a fix for how regulation of email in the pursuit of a spam free world will not, unlike virtually all regulation that preceded it, lead to unintended consequences and a crowding out of individual rights conjoined with government expansion into our private lives. But we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves if spam, as nasty as it is, is so bad that we are prepared to ignore the prospect of private solutions and allow governments, backed by the use of deadly force, to tell us what we can and cannot do with our email—our speech.
Let me put this another way, at the risk of hyperbole: Spam may be the cost of freedom. Sorry to be trite, but freedom isn't free and we are all too aware of the sacrifices many have made and are making for the sake of freedom. Spam's a small price to pay to share that burden.