Salt Lake City Weekly news & opinion
Point, Click, Sue
City Beat
November 29, 2001

It must work. The people who send the mass compilations of junk e-mails to anonymous lists must have some reason for doing it. Looking for a motive behind the daily annoyance? Blame the few people who have probably given them money. Nonetheless, trying to thwart the hordes of junk e-mail that flood most in-boxes presents a rather daunting challenge. You could try simply replying to them callously: “Your insinuation that I may enjoy watching young women have sex is insulting and highly offensive. Please remove my address from your list.” Or, more delicately: “Thank you for your concern, but I seem to have no trouble maintaining an erection right now.”

But chances are, even the most poignant reply to the distributors of obnoxious and sometimes pornographic e-mail wouldn’t really make a difference. In spite of the valuable messages pertaining to love, friendship or work, the constant inflow of junk e-mail, or spam, is enough to make some people’s electronic in-boxes resemble a Las Vegas gutter. A free flow of information obstructed by mountains of titillating but innocuous fliers, advertisements and junk.

Porn Czar Paula Houston has a solution: Don’t put up with the spam. If you are receiving offensive e-mails in excess, shoot the messengers. Well, don’t shoot them; sue them. The people and companies that make it possible for their clients to click onto the vast resources of the web should also be able to—and in fact required to—“protect” you from the solicitors of sex, she insists.

At a meeting of the Legislature’s Interim Judiciary Committee on Nov. 14, Houston presented her first drafts of a moral nuisance law that lawmakers had insisted she formulate when she got her job last winter. During the presentation, Houston and her boss, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, made it clear that local Internet service providers would have to either clean up the spam that their customers receive or face lawsuits from Utah cities, counties or citizens.

Houston hopes lawmakers will move the moral nuisance laws already on the books into a new area, where they would be considered civil violations and open to “civil remedies.” A nuisance is “anything which is injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property.” Houston suggested that Internet service providers could therefore be liable for all the junk that their customers receive—and face civil actions that this new interpretation of the law would support.

“With the Internet service providers, what it does is you have to specifically give them notice that you are receiving these e-mails that are offensive to you and that you don’t want to receive them. If they fail to take action to stop it from coming to you then they would be responsible for it,” Houston said during the committee meeting at the Capitol.

“We can start here and clean up our own backyard,” Shurtleff said at the same meeting in reference to local ISPs.

That they may be held liable for all the loads of electronic spam e-mail their clients receive has made some local Internet service providers more than a little nervous. “This is obviously a plan formulated by someone who is not technically versed,” said Pete Ashdown, owner of local provider XMission. “The people who are not technically versed think it is really easy to wave a magic wand and stop all e-mail spam from entering the browser. But it is impossible to build a program that will stop all things that a person may find objectionable all the time if you still want to retain access to all of the Internet. You can block certain senders, but they can always come in from a different direction. I would rather quit than be in a situation where I had to restrict access to the Internet, if it was ever constitutionally possible for them to make me do that.”

Ashdown said he called the Attorney General’s Office after he learned of the proposed law, but when he finally was transferred to Houston, her words were not reassuring. “They are acting on complaints from people who receive these e-mails and are obviously not educated about how it all works,” Ashdown said. “I don’t want those same people calling me to tell me that I am going to jail or being sued because I don’t abide by their will when it is technically impossible for me to abide by their will.”

But abide by their will you must. Houston is, at least. At the meeting with the legislators, she said she sent out word that she wanted “to get a feel” for the problem. Upset Utahns forwarded her 1,500 lascivious e-mails in response. All of them most likely telling her how to find free dirty web-cam pictures or watch young women get it on live. The sheer volume of the problem makes it more suitable for civil cases than actual criminal prosecution, she said.

Suing ISPs would give parents and local officials a way to stop it, although the Porn Czar did acknowledge that filtering spam would be “obviously a difficult thing to do.”

Internet service providers say the type of filtering Houston and Shurtleff advocate only leads to abuse of systems by censors with personal or political agendas. “There is no way it could be enforced,” said Lance Wilson, the owner of Webguy Internet, a local provider. “It would be a bad situation for Internet service providers because it places us in a legal realm that is very uncomfortable. We are providers, we cannot be liable for that.”

Houston told the legislators that a draft would be available to them that would include the responsibility of providers to clean up the e-mail. The Legislature had given her an October deadline to produce a draft of the moral nuisance law that would “abate and discourage obscenity and pornography.” In order for it to become an actual law, a legislator would need to sponsor it and see it through the next session.

A frightening parallel to the attorney general’s efforts was reflected in news coming out of Beijing. On Nov. 21, the Associated Press reported that Chinese authorities had shut down more than 17,000 Internet bars for failing to block websites considered “subversive or pornographic.” Those who provided access to the Internet in China were liable for the content that customers accessed. Another 28,000 Internet bars were ordered to install monitoring software aimed at controlling the Internet’s use.

Staffers at the Attorney General’s Office decided that they would have no comment on this story because Houston was “unavailable.” She had told Ashdown that the law wasn’t something XMission and other ISPs would have to worry about. But she wasn’t around to set the record straight for this story. On Nov. 21, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Shurtleff and his spokesman, Paul Murphy, were “unavailable” as well.


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