US antispam bill still isn't death to anonymity

John R. Levine johnl at
Mon Nov 24 14:08:04 EST 2003

[Moderator's note: I'm allowing through this one last message, but
 we've really, really gotten off topic here. --Perry]

>> No, it only makes it illegal to use false or misleading information to
>> send commercial e-mail.  That's a rather important distinction.
>So, I get non-commercial emails all the time, from topica mailing
>lists and from people forwarding New York Times articles and such.
>They come with embedded ads, that the sender cannot turn off.  These
>ads are for the benefit of the helper site (e.g. topica).  Are these
>messages commercial email, or not?

I doubt it, since the person forwarding it isn't the NYT or Topica and
the messages you're describing don't sound like they meet the
definition of commercial e-mail where the "primary purpose" has to be
commercial.  Remember, laws are not software, and they're interpreted
by judges, not by C++ code.  Maybe there's a crazed Attorney General
somewhere who would want to file such a case, and he could find an
even more crazed judge who wouldn't laugh it out of court, but I
wouldn't lie awake at night worrying about it.

> Is the sender penalized if their email address or domain name was
> registered with privacy-protecting circumlocutions (like addresses
> and cities of "123 Main St, Smallville")?

Even beyond the reasons above that they wouldn't, if you'd read
sections 4(a)(3) and 4(a)(4) of the bill, you'd know the answer is no
since the rules about false domain info apply only to bulk mail.

>So, I get emails at various times from people I've never met, saying,
>"I hear that you give money for drug policy reform, would you give
>some to my nonprofit X for project Y?"  Is that a commercial email?

Is that a message "the primary purpose of which is the commercial
advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service"?  I
suppose that there might be a judge somewhere so twisted that he would
think so, but for me it fails my standard is-it-more-likely-than-
being-hit-by-lightning test.

>The larger point is that people in the United States don't generally
>have to closely examine the content of their daily communications,
>to censor out any possible mention of commerce, money, business, finance,
>products, services, etc, to avoid legal liability.

Right, and if you look at the definitions in this bill, you'd know
that this interpretation of it is ridiculous.  Insofar as this bill
regulates anything, it regulates advertising mail, not mail with
incidental mentions of magic words.

>No, but outlawing anonymizers *is* one of them.  Anyone who wants to
>get an anonymizer shut down can just send a commercial email through it.

Hmmn, I guess you missed definition (3)(15) about routine conveyance,
the description of which includes every anonymizer I've ever seen, and
definition (3)(9) which confirms that routine conveyance does not
count as initiating a message.  The person who sends the spam through
the anonymizer may be breaking the law, but the operator of the
anonymizer isn't.

As I've been saying, there are plenty of things wrong with this bill,
but outlawing anonymous non-spam isn't one of them.  I would be much
more concerned that it gives a green light to big companies that have
been waiting on the sidelines to fill our mailboxes with so much
garbage that we can't find the trickle of real mail.  Think of it as
reverse steganography.

John Levine, johnl at, Primary Perpetrator of "The Internet for Dummies",
Information Superhighwayman wanna-be,, Sewer Commissioner
"More Wiener schnitzel, please", said Tom, revealingly.

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