From Soccer Moms to Spam Dads

Can obnoxious e-mail ads save the Democrats?

I recently gave my sons their own “for kids only” e-mail accounts on AOL. It felt like the 21st-century equivalent of giving them their own pocket knives. Joe, then 8, and Gordon, 6, excitedly typed out messages to some friends about Pokémon or favorite birthday presents. They hit “send” by themselves.

The next day we sat down to check their accounts. Sure enough, the handle on the you’ve-got-mail icon was up. We excitedly opened the mailbox to find Joe had gotten a personalized e-mail about … Penis Enlargement.

I turned off the computer before they could see. I really wasn’t ready to have this conversation. (“Well, son, some people say size doesn’t matter, while others …”)

But it made me angry, and I wondered, isn’t there something Dennis Kucinich can do about this? OK, my daydream wasn’t that specific, but I did want some opportunistic crusader to help me. Spam is ready to become a prime-time political issue.

On one level, it’s a classic Tipper Gore kind of problem. Cultural pollution is pouring into our homes, and we need, as Bill Clinton (or was it Dick Morris?) said, “tools” to protect our families. Spam seems a much more severe threat than raunchy rock lyrics or violence on television, or even Bill Bennett’s gambling. Religious groups recently scored a victory by getting Wal-Mart to pull the salacious magazine Maxim from its newsstand shelves. But that seems a bit beside the point when you can’t collect your e-mail from Aunt Minnie without scrolling past ads for sex with barnyard animals.

The single greatest development of the Internet era is not live chat, streaming video, or even the World Wide Web in general. It is e-mail. Studies by the Pew Internet Project show that on any given day 88 percent of those online send or read e-mail. The next most popular action is reading news, which is done by 50 percent of those online. “Everything else is chump change,” says the group’s Lee Rainie. I literally would not have been able to start my business (Beliefnet) if I hadn’t been able to lazily send out free business plans, pitches, and pleas without having to schlep to the post office. More important, e-mail has rekindled the art of letter-writing. And not to sound overly sentimental, but it’s helped bring families together. I’d bet parents communicate with their kids at college far more as a result of e-mail than they would if they had to rely on the phone alone. Spam is anti-family.

In another piece of evidence that this is growing as a political issue, Sen. John McCain held a splashy hearing about the scourge just yesterday. “E-mail messaging has fundamentally changed the way we communicate,” he said. “The growing affliction of spam, however, may threaten all of this.” At the hearing, industry witnesses reported that spam now accounts for almost half of e-mail sent, up from 7 percent in 2001. Spam has ushered in a golden age of consumer fraud. A Federal Trade Commission study concluded that two-thirds of all marketing e-mails are at least partially fraudulent.

Given all this, you’d think Congress would have done something by now. While either political party can use spam to crusade for good values, Democrats have the added advantage of being able to attack the administration for failing to protect the little guy. There may even be a battling-the-special-interests angle. So, why haven’t they pursued it? A recent article by Associated Press reporter David Ho explained the legislative inaction so far: “Congress has in the past been reluctant to crack down on spam, in part because of lobbying from retailers, marketing firms and others who use such e-mail for their businesses.”

Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation will be flummoxed by this one because the normal checks and balances of the marketplace are not working. Regular snail-mail junk mailers have to be somewhat discerning in targeting their material because they do have to pay for printing and mailing. E-mail, though, is virtually free to whip out; spammers have an economic incentive to send to every e-mail address they can get. If even a miniscule percentage respond, it’s cost-effective.

I admit the spam issue may seem a bit pedestrian compared to terrorism or unemployment. There probably won’t be many single issue anti-spam voters. And candidates would certainly need to be careful not to overstate its importance. (Example: “Dick Gephardt will destroy al-Qaida—and spam. You can count on it.”)

But this is one of those ideas, akin to Clinton’s use of improved child-support collection, that send a signal that the candidate is attentive to the concerns of ordinary Americans. One of the differences between Al Gore’s approach and Clinton’s was that Gore didn’t have a stable of issues that enabled him to wax red-state about cultural values.

There are good pieces of anti-spam legislation out there, like one sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, that propose similar approaches to those that have curbed telemarketing or junk faxes. Because spammers operate all over the world, it requires national and international action. Perhaps a coalition of the willing might help.

Of course if Democrats don’t act quickly, it would be easy for President Bush to take over this issue himself. Some might say that lowering himself to the level of junk e-mail is beneath the presidency, but the reality is that helping to solve this problem would actually benefit more people than repealing the tax on stock dividends. Maybe he couldn’t put the argument quite that way, but it is clear that the anti-spam vote is up for grabs.