Out the Inbox

Almost no one is happy with what resulted. In December, President Bush signed into law the “Can-Spam” (Controlling the Proliferation of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act. The law falls far short, critics say, and may even lead to more spam in the long run by explicitly giving more companies legal entrée to our inboxes. Backed by such business interests as the Direct Marketing Association, the law is not aimed at spam per se, but at fraud. Indeed, the law legitimizes unsolicited commercial email, as long as it adheres to certain rules. Email headers may not be forged, the identity of senders must be included, and there must be a way for recipients to “opt out” of future emails. Even porn spam is legal under the law, as long as it is clearly labeled as such.

Joining antispam activists in decrying the deviously misnamed law are state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission, who say Can-Spam strips them of enforcement power needed to deal with problem spammers. Since the law passed, more aggressive state laws have been trumped. “Unfortunately, this takes away our enforcement power,” said Leslie Sandberg, spokeperson for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. Minnesota’s law wasn’t particularly useful in any case, activists say, partly because it applied only to spam sent within the state to a state resident. But the new federal law isn’t held in much higher esteem. “The Can-Spam Act just means now you can spam,” says Visi.com’s MacLeslie with some disgust.

The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), which has lobbied for stricter state and federal laws, says the law will likely have zero effect, and may even make things worse. “It fails the most basic test of legislation: It doesn’t tell anybody not to spam,” says John Mozena, a CAUCE vice president. And in fact, “legitimate marketers might get in” to spam because the law essentially gives them permission to do so. Since the law was passed, there have already been indications that big marketing companies have launched new spam campaigns. Before the law, most of them were scared off by the taint associated with the practice, or by tough state laws.

Of course, pornographic spam carries with it a special set of problems. But getting righteous about the actual content of spam is a quagmire in itself. “We’re pretty content-neutral,” said Mozena. The porn industry itself is ambivalent on the matter. Some of the bigger producers of adult material are concerned about their reputations in the face of massive public criticism of their business. Many have joined the anti-spamming cause for purposes of self-preservation.

Last year, the Free Speech Coalition—a porn-industry lobbyist—officially adopted an anti-spam stance, and then-Executive Director William Lyon told Adult Video News that porn peddlers should refrain from spamming altogether. “Spam is a huge problem,” he said. “Little old blue-haired ladies from Pasadena do not like to see people screwing in their morning email.” But the coalition has moderated its view since then, perhaps as a result of market pressures—or the passage of Can-Spam. They now take a more laissez-faire stance. Pornographers “should have the opportunity to contact a potential customer,” says Kat Sunlove, Lyon’s replacement. While the coalition is against harvesting email addresses from newsgroups or the Web, it isn’t opposed to spamming itself, at least within the parameters of President Bush’s apparent support for the porn industry as expressed in Can-Spam. “We’re in business,” Sunlove says. “Capitalism is a great thing.”

The message boards at Porn City could be viewed as a real-time case study in arrested development. There, GeekTech’s Webmasters and other porn-biz associates chat, trade tips and industry gossip, kid around, and post lots of pictures. They call each other “homo” with astonishing regularity, and the place is rife with dirty jokes worthy of a twelve-year-old boy’s tree fort. The crew returned in January from Internext Expo, an adult entertainment-industry trade show in Las Vegas, and immediately took to the boards to post pictures of themselves at the event. One photo posted by a message-board participant shows himself standing next to a woman. They are both looking toward the camera in what would otherwise be a standard pose, except that she is pulling her shirt up and his hand is on her bare breast. The caption: “This proves I’m not gay.” Misspelling and bad grammar seem de rigueur—so abundant that it almost seems like eloquence must be against the rules. Of course, bad taste has never been a crime. Even here, though, you won’t find a defense of spam.
Most citizens of Porn City—including Mayor Strouse—are officially against it, or at least find spam annoying. Some take a more libertarian stance, saying complaints about it amount to “whining” and anyway, it’s easily deleted. Nobody trades tips or tricks on how to spam, but nobody talks about the spam problems generated by their business, either. This seems a little ironic, since these are precisely the sort of people who understand just how much bandwidth unwanted email is taking up on their servers.

The other Porn Citizens treat Strouse with a deference that mayors of actual cities don’t often enjoy. Pictures of Strouse on the boards show him to be an unlikely pornmeister. He has a soft baby face and short hair with blond highlights. He’s a clean-cut lad in his twenties, and in his ballcap and T-shirt, he would look natural on the sidelines of a pre-teen soccer game.

After not returning messages or emails for months, Strouse finally relented to being interviewed. Once he got past his somewhat hostile and defensive posture, he came across as a personable, good-humored businessman, with precisely the kind of frat-boy-sowing-his-wild-oats persona that has come to symbolize the new generation of virtual pornographers. He may suffer slightly from paranoia; after our interview, he took to his public message boards to complain about the story, which wouldn’t be written until weeks later, saying he was the object of a “witch hunt” and hinting that he might sue for “liable.”

According to several associates who asked not to be identified, Strouse is indeed an agreeable colleague. He works hard and puts in long hours. And he likes to have fun, too—traveling when he can to places like Bangkok to take part in the hardcore nightlife scene there. He’s into boating, which is one reason he stays in Minnesota. But he lives much of the year in Fort Lauderdale, where some of his Web domains are registered. Asked about his business activities in Florida, he said, “There is nothing I am allowed to talk about regarding this right now. Confidentiality agreements force me to keep my mouth shut on that subject for now.”

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