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Return to sender: Restrict the flow of e-mail sludge

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If they tried to send it to me by way of U.S. mail, they'd be in trouble.

If they tried to force me to take it from them on the streets, I'd probably call the police.

But if there's a way to shut off the stream of pornographic spam that invades my computers, both at work and at home, I can't seem to find it.

Every few days, amid the hundreds of e-mails I get carrying information about medical innovation, vitamins, exercise machines and a variety of technological breakthroughs, I get one that tells me "naughty Nancy" or "voluptuous Valerie" has "something to show you."

They're turning my computer into a temporary landfill and, like a landfill, it stinks.

When they first started sending me the e-mails, I tried replying, marking "Remove" in the subject field.

That, it turns out, was a huge mistake. For the most part, the garbage came back to me marked "undeliverable." And when the message did get through, it apparently only served to notify the smut sender that my e-mail address is, indeed, a "live one." Yes, a real person actually receives it. Send more.

Our systems manager at work told me to hold my nose and just delete the messages.

Besides finding the material offensive, it's a tremendous waste of time.

Amid all the things that I adore about e-mail, that's my biggest complaint — even when the messages are not sleazy come-ons from creeps I don't know trying to send me to Web sites I wouldn't be caught dead in.

E-mail has simplified my life in ways I can hardly begin to describe. My brother Ken and I keep in touch much more often now. My niece, Tracy, who gets the funniest e-mail in the world, passes it on. There's no question she brightens my day. And my sister Kathy and I can jog each other's memories on things like making doctor's appointments or what to bring to the family barbecue on Saturday.

Occasionally, I hear from someone I'd lost touch with clear back in the days immediately after high school graduation, more than two decades ago.

Those missives, though not solicited, are a treat to receive.

But I am considerably less charmed by other e-mail that flows like water into my inbox. Besides the techno-trash, I receive a zillion or so financial offers. Earn $2 trillion while sitting at your computer. Only a small investment required . . . Check out these specials . . . Enter to win.

I barely have time to deal with the e-mail I want and need to receive.

Don't even get me started on the e-mail chain letters that come my way. I didn't much like the printed version; I hate the cyber kind. It's a virtual annoyance.

I've developed a system for the junk mail the postal worker brings. I sort it out on my way into the house, letting it slip from my fingers into the garbage can outside the door. That reduces junk mail to being a minor annoyance. If only e-mail were so simple.

Lawmakers have come up with some protections against telemarketers and their unsolicited, ring-when-it's-least-convenient phone calls. You can be put on a "don't call" list.

There's nothing comparable, yet, to protect you from unsolicited e-mail.

Oddly, I'm not annoyed that people would send such e-mail or junk mail or even make the phone calls. People have a right to earn a living and to speak their piece. Once.

But "annoyed" doesn't even begin to describe my frustration with my inability to shut it off.

I'm not big on legislating cyberspace. There are too many jurisdictional problems. But there's one rule I think should be universal, applied whether you're in Salt Lake City or Timbuktu. And it wouldn't break my heart to see it applied to junk mail, as well.

You ought to be required to provide a valid return address, whether e-mail or snail mail. If you can send something to me, I ought to be able to bounce it back to you with the suggestion that your correspondence is unwelcome. And a filter ought to see that missives don't arrive without that contact point included.

That's not stepping on anyone's right to free speech or to make a living. It's just cutting back the clutter.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com