Tuesday, July 15, 2003

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Debating the regulation of annoyance

I'm quite certain that the sentence "Spammers and telemarketers comprise the lowest form of existence on the planet." would generate huzzahs across the developed world. Christopher Caldwell certainly feels that way about spam e-mail, and he's not alone. It's not too hard to find similar comments about telemarketing. These complaints are usually accompanied by the tagline "something must be done!"

In the case of telemarketing, something is being done. Congress passed and President Bush signed the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act -- which empowers the FCC to create a national "do not call registry" that would make it illegal for telemarketers to call your phone number -- with some exceptions. It would not be surprising to see a similar legislative effort to deal with spam.

In the interest of being completely contrarian, let me kindly suggest that legislative/regulatory efforts might not be the best way to deal with the problem. It's not that I like these activities -- it's that there are compelling arguments for relying on private measures to deal with these kinds of private interference. Mass annoyances generates demand for products to deal with them for minimal cost. This is one reason I'm enjoying my newly-installed Google toolbar so much -- 187 pop-up ads blocked and counting!! Arnold Kling points to multiple methods to filter out spam.

[But surely telemarketing merits regulation?--ed. Farhad Manjoo argues that the looming regulation carries significant costs, although her reliance on industry data suggests those cost estimates are exaggerated. Plus, even with telemarketers, services such as caller ID can bemore precise than the do-not-call registry. So this means you won't be using the do-not-call registry?--ed. Ummm... I didn't say that. Hypocrite--ed. No, just a mortal human demonstrating why the urge to regulate is strong, even if it's not the first-best solution to the problem]

posted by Dan on 07.15.03 at 02:11 PM