Spam messages have become such a problem - clogging Internet mailboxes and hijacking people's time - that they're cutting into many companies' productivity. Electronic mail, the great timesaver, has been turning into a great time-waster.
And that's only part of the problem. The glut of unwanted commercial e-mail is often misleading, pornographic or come-ons for scams. In short, disgusting, dishonest and dangerous.
This is why recent anti-spam legislation passed by Congress and promised to be signed by the president is a healthy development. True, it will be difficult to enforce and far from 100 percent effective; nonetheless, it should be a marked improvement. For now, that's good enough; after all, nothing is perfect.
The new federal law mirrors most of the spam-fighting laws that it's pre-empting in 37 states. The central feature is that unsolicited e-mails must stop being sent to recipients who request a stoppage.
The legislation also requires the Federal Trade Commission to develop a plan for a do-not-spam registry along the lines of the do-not-call registry designed to shield telephone consumers from unwanted telemarketing sales pitches.
The FTC and state attorneys-general are called on to enforce the new law. Violators could find themselves paying up to $250 for each junk e-mail with a cap of $2 million, to be tripled for aggravated circumstances. The cap will be lifted altogether on messages with false or deceptive headlines.
Not everyone is pleased with the new law. Commercial e-mailers who claim they deal honestly with the public feel they'll be the victims of collateral damage.
But as one would expect, most of the complaints are from the other end of the spectrum - that the legislation isn't tough enough. Hard-liners would ban commercial e-mails, period, except for people who request them. They would also allow individuals to sue spam violators, which could lead to class action lawsuits.
Maybe someday it will come to the hard-line, but for now Congress fears that would tread too heavily on free-speech rights. Strangely, they didn't worry about free speech when they wrote the new campaign finance law recently approved by the Supreme Court.