Yesterday a notorious spammer testified in front of the Senate Commerce committee. Here’s the Washington Post article about his testimony. Ronald Scelson, an eighth-grade dropout and self-taught computer programmer from Louisiana, claims that he sends between 120 million and 180 million e-mails every 12 hours, and said he can break sophisticated software filters within 24 hours.

He freely acknowledged that he harvests millions of e-mail addresses from publicly available directories at America Online and other providers. Executives from America Online had just finished testifying about their efforts to block spam, and how much they dislike folks like Scelson that use their members’ addresses.

But Scelson caused an uncomfortable moment at the hearing when he pointed out that “the same people complaining about spam send e-mail” with solicitations for their own products and services. “AOL spams its members,” he said.

This prompted the committee chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to turn to Ted Leonsis, vice president of AOL. “Mr. Leonsis, are you a spammer?” McCain asked.

Leonsis, who had testified minutes earlier about how AOL was blocking 2.4 billion pieces of spam per day, evaded the question. “We let members opt out” of commercial messages sent by the company and affiliates, he said.

Think about that for a second. AOL Time Warner owns roughly half the companies in the world. (I’m looking for a chart showing everything it owns. You’d be appalled.) Clearly AOL Time Warner believes it has a free pass to send junk advertising on behalf of its “affiliates” while it simultaneously crows about how much it hates “spam.”

The lesson is: don’t forget that spam is a hard problem. There’s no obvious line between junk and legitimate advertisements.

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