National Catholic Reporter
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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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June 3, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 10

  Unless I ask you to write, please don't
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister,OSB

This is a public declaration: Let it be heretofore acknowledged and recorded that I do not want to mortgage my house, because I do not own one. I am not looking for a loan because I cannot pay it back. And I am not trying to enlarge any part of my anatomy. Everything I have is more than big enough now. Let this, then, be legal notice: I do not want to get unsolicited ads for these services every time I turn on my computer.

Spam, unsolicited pornography and marketing email, has become the scourge of life lived on a computer -- which is where I spend much of mine. But I and my kind are not the only people affected. I know an old lady who gets seven or 10 letters every morning and not one of them is from the granddaughter who's gone away to school. A new woman in a government welfare program who has never worked on a computer before can't imagine deleting them sight unseen --just in case. Kids, whose parents think they have solved things for their pre-pubescent family by using program filters, titter and smirk about them.

In fact, on one Internet search engine alone I found 876,000 articles about spam, over 90% of them dedicated to spam's elimination. But nobody has been able to do it yet. Filters do not work. I know because I have tried. As a result, I lost mail I should have received and went on getting mail I did not want because I couldn't come up with enough filters to match the imaginations of the people who create and package this low level stuff. And that is really embarrassing.

Nor do the "unsubscribe" links work. They're there, as required, of course, but they are always "unavailable" it seems. Or worse, they trap a user into a loop from which it is impossible to exit without first flipping through 25 screens of pornographic come-on sites.

There are "assassinate spam" programs, too. But they are expensive attempts that often assassinate the smooth operation of what was an otherwise docile computer. If you were born with a silver motherboard in your mouth, they might be the answer. For the rest of us, trained on yellow pads and ballpoint pens, trying to reconfigure a computer's basic configuration is a recipe for mayhem.

And there are court cases aplenty, all of them hard to prove, none of them effective about spam in general.

Just to be clear, I am not taking issue with free market advertising. But spam is not free. Spam is not the Third Class Mail of the Internet age. The marketer pays for Third Class Mail to be delivered to my home where I can dispose of it in one trip to the wastebasket. Spam comes at my expense. And I pay plenty. I pay for the time it takes to download it. I pay by the minute in hotels that charge enormous phone line charges for me to pick up "mail" I do not want. I pay in foreign countries where phone companies charge customers by the minute, not the month, for a line. I pay in Internet cafes and airports around the world.

There's no doubt about it: spam has got to go. But how?

The problem is that spam does not simply inconvenience people. It also raises an interesting legal question: Should spam be made illegal? The quick response, if you -- as I do face -- 20 or 30 of those ads every morning, is a resounding "yes." But a slower more considered judgment argues that there is a question under the question that is far more important. And that question is, "Should the Internet be regulated?" Ah, now that is another issue entirely.

The Internet is the only truly democratic, or at least potentially democratic, form of public communication we have. Without it, for instance, we may never have learned about the attack on student protesters in Tiananmen Square. (Or, for that matter, our country's behavior throughout the world.) The word about Tiananmen was not released to the world by a Chinese news agency. On the contrary. It came out when one Chinese computer science major from a U.S. university wrote back to student friends here.

A regulated internet -- a restricted global communication system -- that could be regulated by individual governments could be used to suppress more than spam. It could put a bridle on internationally coordinated peace marches, for instance; it could restrict underground publications like "Truthout," for instance; it could block universal personal opinion, for instance; it could limit international information gathering, for instance. It could obstruct the very freedom of speech we say we are exporting to the rest of the world.

In the end, the loss to world development could be far more impacting than the gain to be gotten by cleaning up the morning mail.

But I am not giving up the struggle against spam. I do have an idea. I would like to see declared illegal the sending of ads to anyone who has not requested or registered to receive them. Then if someone sends me an unsolicited ad, let his or her punishment be to pay my phone bill. I promise you, these people will be out of the spam business overnight.

From where I stand, that looks like a punishment that would really fit the crime.

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