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He believes that Internet marketers will pony up for an organization that, through investigative digging, harassment, and public education, helps force fraudulent bulk emailers out of business.

Rather than trying to block spam after it has been sent, Sernovitz would make it unattractive to send spam in the first place.

The most fervent antispam activists now predict that the world’s email system will seize up within six months.

The task force operates out of space lent by the company that bought Sernovitz’s consulting firm.

All told, the task force has collected just two checks from corporate members. He founded the Association for Interactive Media, a successful trade association for Internet companies that was absorbed in 1998 by the Direct Marketing Association.

It speaks to the peculiar economics and politics that have allowed spam to flourish and to a debate that is as fractured and unruly as the Internet itself. Likewise, the marketing industry has fought federal and state antispam legislation that would compromise its own ability to blanket us with email pitches.

When it comes to email marketing, this is the reality: What the good guys want and what the bad guys want are more or less the same thing. The economics of email are just too seductive: It’s relatively easy and incredibly cheap for anyone to send out millions of messages to anyone with an email account.

Although he is well connected in media circles, Sernovitz is basically a small fish swimming in deep, swirling waters. “Legitimate” marketers would rather the spammers disappear — but not if that means quashing the opportunity that both groups enjoy. It is an unspoken collusion, a sort of state-sponsored terrorism directed at our inboxes.

Sernovitz’s problem, however, is more complex than that. Sernovitz makes big-name marketers and ad agencies nervous, because they’re not sure if his nascent effort would ultimately target them.Even more circumspect forecasters agree that small ISPs and businesses may soon be overwhelmed. He hates that 10-year-olds get messages that advertise porn sites, and he hates that his own inbox is clogged with crap that he never asked for. Two guys can send out a message, and if it’s any good, people will buy from them.Mostly, though, spam offends his passion for direct marketing. It’s pure sport — and now, the cheaters have taken over the competition.”Unlike you or me or almost anyone with a telephone and a mailbox, Sernovitz loves direct marketing. When he was 14, he started supplying lists of classmates in Milwaukee to a direct-mail broker. The consulting firm that he has just sold, Gas Pedal, advises clients on effective email strategies.The ones who don’t will give up the business, because it won’t be worth the hassle. Sernovitz is convinced of this.“Why do they call me a spammer?” asks Steve Hardigree, who is tanned and fit, affable and decorous. With close-cropped blond hair and a soft Georgia twang, he comes across as a college-football coach.He is not afraid to share his opinions, or to act on them. It is a cause that resonates in hundreds of millions of homes and office cubicles around the world — and one whose resolution could be worth billions of dollars. The world, it seems, is moving slower than he would like.

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