By Tom Still

MADISON – I feel like Julius truly cares about me. He often sends me stock tips. Brittney cares, too. She passes along ideas for how to buy prescription drugs on the cheap. Octavio? He’s my main man when it comes to debt reduction. Ursula seems more interested in enlargement.

These are just a few of the names that pop up in the “From” line of my e-mail every day, usually arriving overnight so that one of my first jobs in the morning is cleaning out unsolicited messages from Fidel, Elvis and the King of Nigeria.

Unwanted commercial messages, many of them fraudulent, now account for more than half of all e-mail traffic in the United States. This unrelenting barrage of spam is costing the economy billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and, worse yet, dramatically reducing the effectiveness of one of the greatest communications tools of our time.

Some 60 percent of all e-mail in January was spam, according to figures quoted at a recent symposium at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee. That was up from 58 percent in December 2003, as calculated by Brightmail, which makes spam-blocking software used by Internet providers and companies.

It’s no wonder that the nation’s largest Internet companies filed federal lawsuits last week to put some of the biggest spammers out of business. The six suits filed by America Online Inc., EarthLink Inc., Yahoo Inc and Microsoft Corp. seek injunctions to shut down the spammers and force them to pay damages that would run into the millions of dollars. While many of the defendants were identified only as “John Doe,” lawyers are hopeful the lawsuits will smoke out the identities of the leading spammers.

They can probably search close to home. A spam-fighting company called Sophos recently calculated that the United States is responsible for 56 percent of the world’s spam, with Canada, China and Hong Kong all clustered at about 6 percent each. That suggests that enforcing federal and state laws against spam should clean up your e-mail inbox, right?

Not necessarily. The enactment of the federal CAN-SPAM Act in January provided the basis for the lawsuits filed last week, but experts say the law passed by Congress may legitimize some spam as it seeks to ban other unsolicited messages. CAN-SPAM (“Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003”) prohibits sending junk e-mail that uses deceptive subject lines or fake routing information, including the “From” field. Senders must include a return address and give recipients a mechanism for opting out of later e-mail messages. The act’s penalties include fines and prison time.

The problem with CAN-SPAM, critics say, is that it gives spammers one free shot at sending unwanted e-mail before recipients can tell them they’re not interested. And many experts say an “opt out” message is a magnet for more spam because it confirms there’s a real person behind the e-mail address.

When CAN-SPAM took effect, it pre-empted the anti-spam laws of Wisconsin and 36 other states. So, if you’ve noticed a dramatic surge in your spam since the start of the year, it’s probably because spammers are taking advantage of jurisdictional confusion.

Fighting spam and virus attacks has become a big business within the even larger Internet business. Some Wisconsin companies are among those at the forefront of technological innovation. Investors are betting that consumer demand for more efficient E-commerce will make those companies a success.

It may require a combination of steps to control spam – the federal lawsuits, the CAN-SPAM Act, new technology and Federal Trade Commission action. While a solution will not emerge overnight, at least a united anti-spam front is emerging. Octavio and Ursula, your days on line may be numbered.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.