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On My Mind:
Not-so-random ramblings on work-related issues

Has the Web disintermediated the media?

  The World Wide Web, with elements such as Internet email, websites, and online databases, has been blamed (or credited, depending on one’s view of the press) for reducing the media’s role in public relations. From the standpoint of a technology vendor, the principal element in this disintermediation are news distribution services such as Business Wire, PR Newswire, and some newcomers. Besides delivering press releases direct to the desktops of hundreds of trade editors and potentially thousands of business editors, these services also provide content directly to over 1,000 databases and wire services such as DowJones, Bloomberg, Lexis/Nexis, etc. Now, a reader can find a company’s release regardless of whether any publication picks it up.

At a cost of less than $200, depending on word-count and creative use of distribution circuits, these extra-media services can be an important and cost-effective supplement to the direct approach; indeed, issuing a release formally, using a distribution service, gives the release an air of authenticity…whether deserved or not. After all, if we’re saying we are issuing a press release, most media would expect a vendor to use a more institutional mechanism than a direct email.

All my past and present clients have used Business Wire with varying degrees of success. It can both enhance the likelihood that a release will be used by traditional media and play a role in delivering news direct to potential customers. It can also be the fastest route to getting news into readers’ hands, as the appearance on a database is instantaneous, and is not delayed by any publications’ deadlines or editorial schedule.

A friend of mine says that the media are dead. I disagree, but it’s sure a different world from when I joined Computerworld in 1969, and the fastest way to get something into my hands was a Teletype message.

Is There Really Such a Thing as Free Speech?
Should there be?

The security risks of unwanted commercial email (a.k.a. spam) are well-recognized, and more and more vendors are coupling anti-spam with anti-virus and other protections into their wares. It’s no wonder: recent statistics say that as much as 90percent of email may be unwanted and/or malicious. Some of these messages, admittedly less than one percent, incorporate viruses that have been modified to elude the most current of anti-virus products, according to MessageLabs.

 While these combination products are catching on, they have a long way to go before users are protected and spammers are discouraged. Suggestions to ban or control spam are spot-on, although one wonders how long we'll need to wait before the legislators get it right. The efforts to date certainly have not worked; indeed, from all appearances, the situation is worse than ever now. While we're waiting, I have another suggestion:  institute "email postage" for each message that is sent.

 I've had more than my fill of spam, both the dirty kind and the merely annoying kind, and it's about time we dusted off an idea that has been frequently proposed and all-too-swiftly dismissed. Spam wastes my time, clogs the arteries that are my Internet connection, clutters my garbage can, and prospectively endangers my system. And, as a person who uses email in his business, I'm willing to pay a small postage fee if it will cut down on the incoming messages.

 Here's the deal. Suppose every addressee cost the sender, say, one cent. Would legitimate businesses be willing to pay this, in order to increase the likelihood that recipients would read their missives? I believe the answer is yes. The ISP could collect the fee, keep a small portion for its accounting service, and remit the remainder to Uncle. The proceeds might not retire the national debt, but they could fund an Internet fraud squad.

 The Internet is no longer a research-oriented network for academics. It is part of the business landscape, and postage is part of the cost of doing business. Why should email be free?  

This idea has the benefit of not tampering with free speech, not controlling content. It just changes the economic model for direct-email marketing.

 If a million-message-a-day spammer had to pay to distribute its messages, some of them might actually go out of business, or at least refine their lists and cut down on the instances of unwanted commercial email. If the marketing companies are paying a bounty to third-party mailers for delivered messages, make the postage exceed that delivery bounty. Make it financially difficult, if not impossible, to make a profit by spamming.

 There have been suggestions to require ISPs to inspect each message, to make sure it's not illegal, immoral, or offensive. This is virtually impossible, there aren't enough humans to take on this judgmental work. And, ISP-enforced censorship can be a slippery First Amendment slope, asking humans to approve others' messages one-by-one. First porn, then sexual-enhancement drugs, then lower-cost prescriptions, home refinancing...where is the line that one should not cross?

 There have also been suggestions that senders must provide a valid address, which is a worthy objective, but not easy to accomplish, technically. They’re working on it, but it’s a way off, and you can bet the bad guys will figure a work-around. 

 The do-not-spam registry is a nice idea, just like the do-not-call registry. But people can run from ISP to ISP, spoof their identity or create a new one, all without fear of detection. The experience so far is not very convincing.

 Hiding behind the right of free speech and the reality of free email, they send their messages willy-nilly. Make them pay, and they'll think at least twice about the number of messages they are sending, and that is a big step in the right direction...without trampling the First Amendment.

 Legitimate mailers, including vendors sending support, warranty, or product-update messages to customers, could institute an opt-in service that could be exempt, as exists with the do-not-call registry.

 The only argument against this is whether we want the government messing with the Internet. And I say this: it's better to have the government enforcing a realistic business model than messing with content. We already have laws against solicitation, child porn, etc. They are not working, in the Internet environment. Messing with the bottom line, now there's something that will get people's attention. 

And that’s also the irony of ironies: perhaps speech on the Internet, the bastion of free speech, should not be free.