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A Dispatch

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December 23, 2004

PSA (Not That Kind) Test

It's not uncommon for a message captured in my server's "Suspects" bin to trouble me for one reason or another, but a recent one gave me a real reason to pause. Its subject was:

PSA: AMBER Alert! --- URGENT! --- AMBER Alert!

The message's return address was a dot-org domain, which could easily be confused to mean an organization (like a non-profit or the like), not necessarily a commercial source. At least they weren't using hijacked computers to send this stuff.

For those of you who aren't in the advertising or broadcasting bizzes, a PSA (not to be confused with the prostate cancer screening test by the same initials) is a Public Service Announcement. Those are the radio and television spots that talk about some public issue, like good health practices, stay in school, read to your kids, just say "no," and so on. Although stations no longer have to run these spots, most do, giving away the air time to a variety of causes (and sometimes surrounding those spots with "brought to you by" advertising).

This email message was posing as an unsolicited public service announcement—the first I had ever recalled seeing. The bulk of the message accurately described the details of an AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert that had been receiving a lot of broadcast air time in the San Francisco area, and probably up and down the west coast. A 13-year old boy had apparently been kidnapped by his father (in violation of a restraining order), and authorities were very concerned for the safety of the child.

At the bottom of the message was an advertisement for auto safety products you've probably seen advertised here and there. Things like the hammer that you can use to break out a window should you be trapped inside your car. That sort of stuff. The domain for the links was the same name as the dot-org sender, but to a dot-info top-level domain. My suspicio-meter jumped a few notches.

Naturally my first inclination was to get on my high horse and instantly label this as "spam" by my definition. My definition has nothing to do with the content of the message, but, rather, whether I had given prior consent to the sender.

But then for a moment I stopped to wonder: what if someone received and read this undesired, unsolicited message, and then happened to spot the car identified in the report, conceivably saving a child from danger? Would that not have been spam for a good cause? If that had been my child, would I not have welcomed every possible avenue of alerting the public?

I don't recall every having been so conflicted about a piece of spam. But I keep coming back to another initial reaction of mine: a businessperson was unfairly exploiting a serious, potentially life-and-death situation to get into the inboxes and minds of recipients who would otherwise rather not hear from him. It could lead to more spammers doing the same thing, damaging the image of the entire AMBER Alert system. I also have doubts about unsolicited email being the proper medium for these kinds of announcements, when radio, television, and electronic highway signs are better poised to get information in front of those who could more likely spot a suspect vehicle.

Another statement in the message also raised my ire:

Interference with the publication and/or the delivery of this Public Service Announcement to its addressee may subject the interfering party to civil and/or criminal penalty.

Please, can someone point me to a law that would subject me or an ISP to a penalty by blocking this message? I mean it: contact me with chapter and verse that gives special protection to this message. Or is this another case of a spammer being too strident with a form of disclaimer?

It all comes back to consent. Even if the message were sent by a government agency, I should have to affirmatively opt-in to receive such messages beforehand, not have them shoved into my inbox involuntarily. There are already plenty of ways to get these announcements emailed to me if I want them (e.g., subscriptions to news organization alerts).

Fortunately, the boy was found, unharmed, within 24 hours of his abduction. The suspect car (with the boy asleep in it) was parked in a residential driveway, where a citizen spotted it. As the result of spam? Highly unlikely.

Posted on December 23, 2004 at 05:44 PM