Say No to Spam
The year: 1978. The place: Digital Equipment Corporation. Digital, one of the largest computer manufacturers of the industry's infancy, has just created its latest computer and is looking for buyers. One Digital employee tries a new way to advertise: he sends an e-mail to every West Coast user of Arpanet, the forerunner of today's internet. Spam is born.
Flash forward 25 years. The Internet has grown exponentially since 1978 -- so has unsolicited commercial e-mail, known as spam. In fact spam is reaching epidemic proportions. Internet service provider America Online blocks upwards of two billion spam e-mails each day -- the equivalent of 67 for each AOL user. And there's more spam coming: MessageLabs, an e-mail filtering company, projects that by this June, spam will surpass legitimate e-mail to become the majority of all e-mail traffic.
This tidal wave of spam is annoying at best; at worst it hurts businesses, clogs networks and defrauds recipients. To avoid being swamped, web companies, web users and the government need to work together now to stem the growing flood of spam.
Spam-blocking technology is a good start, so it was a promising sign earlier this month when internet giants AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo announced that they are teaming-up to develop new anti-spam software and reduce the amount of spam originating from their e-mail services.
But spam filters -- which rely on fairly simple keyword searches to screen out junk e-mail -- let lots of spam through while blocking some legitimate e-mails. For example, despite having the "Junk Mail Filter" for my Hotmail account (a Microsoft e-mail service) set on "high" protection, I got spammed 63 times this past Saturday -- an average spam load, by today's standards. Included were such gems as: "Important: Sensitive info for ROBERT BUTTS only -- please delete after opening" (an ad from a group lotto), and "re: Congratulations -- YOU'VE WON!" (inviting me to claim my mysterious "free prize"), and of course "Celebrities getting naked and sleazy" (no explanation necessary).
As distasteful as some spam is, even more is deceitful. Earlier this month the Federal Trade Commission issued a report finding that two-thirds of spam e-mails contain false information. Business spam -- e-mail promising fast money and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities -- is even worse, with 96 percent containing false information. Some spam is downright fraudulent, like the now (in)famous "Nigerian colonel" letter and its many imitators, which try to dupe readers into giving out their financial information with the promise of illicit riches. These scams have grossed an estimated $2 billion this year.
The sheer bulk of credit card offers, Nigerian colonels and pornographic promos that flood employee inboxes has become an expensive nuisance for businesses. Most corporate e-mail accounts have a storage limit, so spam that fills up an employee's mailbox causes legitimate business e-mail to overflow into the trash. Whole business networks can be overwhelmed by the amount of spam they receive. Worse, company domain names can be hijacked by spammers, who often forge the sender heading on their e-mails. To avoid this, companies must either conceal their employee's e-mail addresses -- losing potential business contacts -- or hire screeners to block out the spam. Either option comes at an unwelcome cost.
Consumers may soon feel the cost as well, as spam spreads to wireless phones. Wireless spamming is already a problem in Japan, where text messaging on cell phones is widely used. As more and more Americans start text messaging, spam will follow. And since many wireless plans carry a per-message charge, wireless spam can hit users in the wallet.
Spam violates our privacy, deceives and defrauds the unwary, and is a drag on the Internet economy -- it ought to be subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as telemarketing and other forms of mass marketing. Many states already have anti-spamming laws, similar to the "do-not-call" laws that restrict telemarketers; the strictest of these laws, in Virginia, threatens spammers with the seizure of their assets and even jail time.
But having a patchwork system of state rules allows spammers to play different jurisdictions off against each other. National policy should start with a bill currently pending in the House, which would require unsolicited e-mail to be labeled with "ADV" in the subject line and make it illegal to use false message headers or addresses. This law protects the right of businesses and individuals to spread their messages via e-mail while also making it easier for users to identify and block spam. Spammers who repeatedly flout the rules ought to have their assets seized, as in the Virginia model.
Regulation and technology cannot stop all spam -- major spammers are a tech-savvy bunch and are very good at covering their tracks and concealing their identities; many also operate offshore. But while a concerted anti-spamming effort cannot catch all spammers, it can make spamming more costly and risky -- this economic pressure will drive even more spammers out of the business.