As the Internet has evolved to provide ever more opportunities to separate fools from their money, the number of people trying to do just that has also increased. It was not always this way. Many years ago when I had my first AOL account, I never received a single piece of unwanted email. When I last tried AOL I received over 20 unwanted solicitations every day, even though I never used the account for email.
What happened? Can we go back to those halcyon days of yore? Can we stop the deluge of unsolicited commercial email, also known as "spam?"
"What happened?" is an easy question to answer. More ordinary people began using the Internet. A few brave souls took the risk of using the new medium to hawk their wares and some appeared to become fabulously successful - though that appearance seldom matched the reality. Others wanted to get in on the action and get rich quick. Junk email was born, grew, and proliferated like a runaway cancer.
Can we go back to the halcyon days of yore? No. You can't go home again, you can't put the genie back in the bottle, and you can't stop folks from trying to sell you things you don't want.
Can we stop the deluge? We can do some things to make spam more tolerable. We can report spam, which requires technical know-how and a bit of work every each time you're targeted. We can also look for legislative solutions. Back in NetBITS-005, I pointed out that once we turn to the government to help us deal with the undesirable elements on the Internet, we open the door to (shudder) regulation of the Internet. That is exactly what is happening across the U.S. with spam - it is being regulated by an increasing number of states, and Congress is actively considering enacting federal legislation to address the subject.
We have now entered an era where many believe it is more desirable to have the government tell us what we can and cannot send across the Internet than to deal with the problems caused by unrestricted Internet use.
The Problem -- In 1997 there were no state or federal statutes in the United States that specifically addressed email or Internet advertising. Since that time several states have enacted statutes, and others have established commissions to study the issue and make recommendations to state legislatures. On the federal level, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has completed two studies on Internet email and marketing; these studies concluded that a serious problem exists and will increase with Internet use. Congress has considered multiple bills addressing the issue; although none have passed yet, it is likely only a matter of time before Congress presents a bill to the President for signature. The FTC reports are available online; see "Protecting Consumers Online," 21-Dec-99, and "Report to the Federal Trade Commission of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Unsolicited Commercial Email," 1997.
The problem addressed by the FTC, Congress, and the state legislatures is known colloquially as "spam." It is known more formally as "unsolicited commercial email," or UCE. UCE generally takes the form of an advertisement for a service or product that is sent to Internet users just as flyers, coupons, and other solicitations are sent to regular postal customers. To spammers, email offers a way to target thousands or even millions of potential customers at virtually no cost. The spammer needs only a computer and an email account. With those tools, he can prepare a single solicitation and email it to dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people at a time by using a list of email addresses gathered from a variety of public sources, such as Usenet news and links on Web pages.
As personal use of the Internet increased, so did the number of people using email to advertise their products and services. Many users didn't like receiving these solicitations, particularly since a large number offer things such as pornography, sexual aids, and other items that many people find offensive. The recipients then responded with torrents of complaints directed back to the spammers, who rapidly found their own email accounts filling up not with orders, but with complaints and demands to stop sending solicitations. Most spammers therefore began to conceal their own email address, instead including phone numbers or obfuscated links to Web sites where the user could place an order.
UCE is different from postal "junk mail" in one important way: When a seller sends a flyer, he must pay for the paper, printing, envelope, and postage for each item (a real cost, even considering the significant discounts for bulk postal mail). By contrast, when a spammer sends a thousand email solicitations, he pays virtually nothing. The recipients, however, do pay for their Internet accounts based either on time spent online or amount of data transferred. Even users with flat-rate pricing pay for spam: their fees are based on estimates of the resources users will consume, so although spam may not result in direct additional costs to the user, it could cause flat-rate pricing to increase across the board. Either way, the user pays the cost of the UCE. According to 1998 estimates in the report to the FTC (see above), users were paying up to $2.00 per month just for UCE, in addition to the time spent replying to or deleting unwanted messages, or reporting abuses. Internet service providers (ISPs) were dedicating increasing amounts of resources and time addressing customer complaints. In addition, the UCE was taking up disk space on the ISP servers - sometimes to the point of forcing the server to shut down until the UCE was cleared out.
Stamping Out Spam -- Now that we know the problem, what can be done about it? In the next part of this article, we'll look at the myriad solutions proposed at the state and federal levels, and why government intervention may not be a panacea for the spam problem.