Spam Continues to Increase; Absolutely No One Shocked

According to anti-spam company Postini, 91% of e-mail messages are now spam. A majority of China’s cell phone users get at least five spam text (SMS) messages per week, and 61% have complained to their service provider about the problem. The European Union has spam loads of 50 to 80% of messages, and is (yet again) calling for increased cooperation in fighting spam. Laws aren’t helping. As Eric Goldman notes, the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of alleged spammers, finding no violation of America’s CAN SPAM Act, no viable “trespass to chattels” claim, and no viable claim under Oklahoma’s anti-spam statute since CAN SPAM pre-empts it. While analyzing spam metrics is difficult (how do you get a random sample of the world’s e-mail traffic?) and prone to bias (Postini has a stake in the outcome, since they sell an anti-spam service), the problem is at least staying constant if not worsening.

I’m starting to believe that these baleful spam statistics can be viewed in the same way that Mark Twain saw the weather: everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it. This has two aspects. First, spam is increasingly a force beyond the control of Internet users or sovereign states; it’s easily manufactured given the way Internet e-mail works and it’s quite difficult to stop or alter. Second, we all whine about it, but spam isn’t the catastrophe that technical experts (and me) thought it would be. For most users, it’s a manageable irritant.

My take on this remains the same: spam persists because it’s a guilty pleasure. It provides useful for information for consumers, even if that’s just a small minority of consumers. There are some scary studies on this – spam’s rate of success is well above what’s necessary for it to justify the costs of sending it. I think we need to re-evaluate spam. Believing that it is pure evil blinds us to the root cause of the problem: some people benefit from spam. Until we think hard about that information value, and how to deal with it, we’re still going to be getting helpful impotence remedy pitches in our inboxes.

Update: The New York Times covers the story, noting both the technological challenges (botnets, image spam) and the economic ones (“pump and dump” stock, citing Jonathan Zittrain’s brilliant research, and the increasing cost of prevention). Stock touting spam takes away one of the anti-spam tools I like best: Web site redirection and blackholing. On the other hand, I’m skeptical of the Times‘ anecdote regarding the Mariners: I’d guess the deluge of e-mail is from fans who are complaining about the signing of Adrian Beltre.

One Response to “Spam Continues to Increase; Absolutely No One Shocked”

  1. I’ve found the best way to deal with spam is white list filtering. This is where you only accept email from known senders, and it blocks over 99% of spam.

    It takes time to set up your white list, but it is definitely worth the effort. You don’t need to change your email program, and it costs you nothing, other than time, to set it up.

    It works, because no matter how smart the spammers are, they can’t know the email addresses of all your friends!

    Spammers rely on the fact that no blocking filtering system is perfect, especially when their message is in an image.

    You can also avoid having to read their lousy messages, by reading your emails in plain text instead of html format.