Among life’s many hassles, the most recently invented is e-mail spam. Nowadays every single e-mail arrives sandwiched between garbage that must be cleared away before getting to friends, family and business. Even those few foolish people who follow up on spam probably hate spam. However, restricting spam may not be as simple as installing new software. Great care is needed to ensure the cure is not worse than the disease.

A spam-free inbox may be only a distant hope, but last week the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry announced a plan to revise the law preventing unsolicited e-mail from reaching mobile phones and personal computers. The proposal calls for making punishments stricter than those stipulated in the law enacted against spam in 2002 and then revised in 2005. Sadly, as any mobile phone or computer user knows, these measures may be too little, too late.

The numbers are already staggering. Chiba police recently found a case of nearly 5.4 billion spam mails sent by one abuser over a two-month period. Worldwide estimates of the amount of spam sent in any 24-hour period range from 60 to 90 billion. Many spam trackers place this year’s spam percentage at 70 percent of total e-mail messages. That’s up from 8 percent in 2001. With three pieces of spam for every one real e-mail, the delete key may be the most used on keyboards all over the world.

New technology brings its own side effects. Spam is a form of pollution that invades the mind. Like other forms of pollution, its effects fall disproportionately on those least able to resist. Large corporations with expensive computer systems can remain relatively free from the worst of this plague. The cost to businesses is incalculable; the cost to individuals is chronic irritation.

Worst of all, young people may be the most susceptible. Spam does not discriminate based on age. And while the Internet already makes nearly everything available to any young person with access and interest, spam sends it right into their hands. Restricting adults’ free choice, even with regard to dubious issues like quasi-legal drugs, scam investments and sexual services, should never be done lightly. Yet, a degree of greater restriction could have important positive effects.

Solving the problem demands new technologies as well as self-regulation by the industries involved. Internet service providers have created better feedback systems that reconfirm the source of messages, but these, as any inbox will reveal, still need improvement. Limiting the number of e-mails from one source is another option that actually reduced cell-phone spam in Japan from its peak in 2003. These patches work, but never for long. Any spammer worth his computer can figure out ways around technological fixes with new techniques.

The inventiveness of spammers’ tricks contrasts sharply with the repetition of the messages themselves. As word-based spam filters improve, spam stops using words like “sexy” or “investment” for more illusive terms, but the content is not much different. Image-based spam, with graphic images, may be even harder to control. New technologies may filter out pictures of grandchildren and weddings along with the crude come-ons. The cost for fixing all this is ultimately passed on to consumers.

Appropriate legislation and strict enforcement can stop the worst of the offenders. Earlier this summer, one twenty-something young “marketing specialist” in America was arrested and charged with various counts of fraud, identity theft and money laundering. His profitable business, which was able to send 20 million e-mail advertisements for just $500, may bring him serious jail time. Two years ago, another spam king was given an 11-year prison term, presumably without Internet access.

The problem is not isolated in any one country, but has already become an international one. These days, spam mail arrives from more countries than U.N. members, making regulation and enforcement even more complicated. As an international problem, cooperation is highly necessary. In the world of spam, Japan is definitely not an island.

Legitimate marketers and honest businesses also need protection. What fits inside the “spam” category may not be so easy to define. Should a computer software update or a recommendation for a new book be considered spam? It may be that spam will never cease until people’s desire for sex, drugs and money — the modern triumvirate of human weaknesses — disappears. One person’s helpful information is another person’s irritant.

Governments need to impose stricter punishments. However, the right to send and receive information of a legitimate kind should never be restricted. Spam may be an irritant we must suffer so as not to concede too much power to the government. Spam is bad, but government control is worse. If only there were a delete button for all the other aggravations in life.

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