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Heart of spam controversy

Heart of spam controversy

Do you have a right to spam? Or to put it a little more formally, is it necessary to protect people's right to send junk e-mail in order to preserve free speech on the Internet? As fond as I am of my right to free speech, I've pretty much ignored the issue when discussing junk e-mail. Mostly because many of the pro-spam arguments I have heard so far have come from junk e-mailers who are just trying to wrap themselves in rights issues to defend actions that we all know are essentially I-highway robbery. Recently, though, I have been hearing from readers who, although they dislike spam, are nonetheless very concerned about the threat any restrictions on junk e-mail might pose to the free speech enjoyed by users of the net.

In a recent Internet forum I hosted on this subject, the majority of participants strongly disagreed with the idea that junk e-mail requires government protections. There were, however, some eloquent voices raised on the other side of the issue. Protecting everyone's right to express unpopular opinions on the net is essential.

One forum participant willingly took on the point made by many others that junk e-mail, unlike junk snail mail, has an economic cost to the recipient.

"But if people were to freely decide to regulate the circulation of e-mail so that spam would rarely occur or not occur at all, it remains the case that this regulation would constrict the domain of possible or tolerable action, the domain of freedom," the participant stated.

At the heart of the issue

The same participant went on to argue that this makes junk e-mail a moral and political issue, not just an economic one.

"I would not wish for governmental and non-governmental bodies [such as ISPs] to determine what I see or don't see, because I have no reason to believe that their choices would reflect mine and because their power would force me to conform to their opinion of what is proper and what is not," the participant stated. "In short, I prefer free speech on the net to order and am willing to suffer the burdens and costs of this choice."

This line of reasoning gives me pause. As we look to the future can we put any restrictions on how the Internet can be used for mass communications in a non-criminal endeavour without severely hampering free speech? I'm not sure we can.

Still, spam poses an insidious threat to the Internet. As one forum participant noted, it's easy to dismiss it until you get hurt by it.

Apps that won't let you in without Explorer are annoying but not sinisterIn the brouhaha between Microsoft and the Department of Justice (DoJ), one way that Microsoft is bundling Internet Explorer 4.0 has gone unnoticed. And although the DoJ cannot do anything about it, some customers are quite unhappy about the discovery that they have to load Internet Explorer 4.0 in order to install another Microsoft application.

"You have probably heard this, but the latest wave of Microsoft products all require Internet Explorer," says one reader. "This is a major pain." The gripers are upset principally because they feel Microsoft is trying to force them to use Explorer instead of Netscape Navigator or another browser.

"I bought Microsoft Visual C++, and during installation I was informed that I must install Explorer in order to continue," says an IT manager.

Another source of annoyance for readers is having to use up hard disk space for a browser on systems that may not even connect to the Internet. A reader who bought Expedia Streets 98 says he found that the installation would abort if he answered "no" to installing Explorer 4.0 and that it would abort if he answered "yes" because he lacked sufficient disk space for all the Explorer files.

But wait, there's more

Of course, as we are reminded on a daily basis in the newspapers, Explorer 4.0 comes with a lot more than a browser. It's more of a Windows 95 service pack than a browser. So shouldn't all those people who were upset about not being able to get OSR2 be delighted that they can buy almost any Microsoft application and get what could be called OSR3? Apparently not.

"OK, we all know that Explorer 4.0 is really an update to the OS," one reader says. "But since when do applications require the latest update to the OS? This is just another way of Microsoft limiting customer choice."

Is Microsoft abusing its power here? Personally, I don't think so. The company has the right to add these features to its applications if it wants to. At the same time, of course, those who feel it restricts them too much have the right to buy someone else's applications. This is all about choices. And if you don't like the ones Microsoft is giving you, there are others you can make. - by Ed FosterEd Foster has been writing about technology and consumer issues for nearly 20 years. Send him gripes about computer companies and products at gripe@infoworld.com


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