Opinions On Spam


Spam is bad. Spam is not free speech. Spam is not commerce. Spam is theft. Spam is harassment. Spam must stop.

SPAM, by contrast, is a potted meat product, made by Hormel, and has nothing to do with the rest of this page. Hormel has graciously refrained from suing people over the confusing terms, and requests only that the all-caps spelling be reserved for their meat product. See also pro-spam resources.

What is Spam?

Spam is unsolicited bulk email, and/or unsolicited commercial email. It's unsolicited pay-per-view advertising. It's postage-due junk mail. It's one of the largest, most expensive, problems facing the Internet today.

Why is spam bad?

How does spam hurt us? Let me count the ways...

  1. Spam has a chilling effect on free speech.
  2. Spam charges recipients for advertising they don't want.
  3. Spam crashes and shuts down legitimate services whose computers are abused.
  4. Spam invades people's privacy.
  5. Spam wastes people's time.

Let's see those in a little more detail:

Spam has a chilling effect on free speech

Spam makes people afraid to give out their email address, and makes them fear communication from strangers.

Spam forces people to miss legitimate communication, whether by filling their mailboxes, so legitimate messages are dropped, or by creating filters, or by hiding legitimate messages in a field of junk, so they get deleted.

Spam charges recipients for advertising they don't want

Users pay for their net access; even if you just look at storage costs, it's obvious that a million copies of a message cost more to store, on all the mail servers they're on, than the original copy took. Spam is often 30% or more of the bandwidth, storage, and CPU time people are paying for — and that cost is passed on to the users.

In many parts of the world, people pay per-minute for network access; even within the U.S., this can happen. Spam cost me about $50-100 of the $500 in phone bills I racked up on my last business trip — and that's with a large and aggressive set of spam filters.

I know, I know — now the apologists will say that it didn't really cost me anything, because of course I can be reimbursed, right?

Sorry, no. First off, my business trip is not reimbursable expenses, because it's volunteer work for ISO. Secondly, by what stretch of the imagination do you conclude that reimbursed expenses don't cost someone anyway? Does it matter whether the spammers are having their business costs paid by me, or by my boss, or by my employer's customers? Deferral of costs is not elimination of costs.

Spam crashes and shuts down legitimate services whose computers are abused

Spammers often use other people's machines, without permission, to relay spam. A medical imaging company lost two weeks of internet connectivity from a spammer attack; a geneology list server was shut down after it was used to relay spam.

Furthermore, spammers often forge the addresses of other people's computers on their spam, deflecting bounce messages and complaints to someone else - who has to process them. This can cost many thousands of dollars. (Some have been able to sue and recover their damages, but it's hardly fair to inflict damages just because the victim may be able to sue.)

Spam invades people's privacy

Should you be subjected to intrusive advertising every time you say or do anything? No. Easy question, easy answer.

Spam wastes people's time

"Just Hit Delete", say the spammers. Let's assume I receive a typical amount of mail; in an average week, I receive perhaps three hundred legitimate messages (as many as eight hundred if I'm busy) In the same time, I receive perhaps two thousand spams. Of course, I can filter a lot of them, so I only have to personally deal with, perhaps, fifty to a hundred. Assuming each takes ten to twenty seconds of my time (this is fairly minimal for scanning messages and determining what they are), that's between ten and forty minutes a week.

Not so bad, the apologists say! That's less than an hour!

Let's consider that each of the million victims (remember, spammers traffic in lists claiming ten to fifty million addresses) is spending perhaps half an hour a week on spam if they do nothing but scan for it and hit delete. Let's furthermore assume that they make a good-faith effort to request removal - that doubles it, easily, and then they also get a lot of bounce messages from bogus or invalid remove addresses, not to mention the increased spam when the spammers, of course, use the "remove" list as a validated list of likely addresses.

Well, that's five hundred thousand hours a week. That's using low estimates for number of victims and time. And, that's assuming filters.

Filters don't write themselves. The filters we use took me a few days to develop, and I spend maybe another half hour a week tuning them. If it weren't for them, I'd be seeing thousands of messages a week. That's several hours a week I'd be spending not producing anything for anyone.

Doesn't sound so good, does it?

The Solution

The solution is to end spam. Period. Spam must stop. No one should send out mass mailings to people who have not explicitly asked for such mailings, nor should they send out ads to people who "might" be interested.

How are people to get information out? By publishing it, of course, and letting users come and find it!

Can companies use email to contact their customers? Of course! That's why they should maintain "opt-in" lists of people who have asked for information. Companies can and should use email to contact customers who have asked for updates; for instance, I would happily sign up for announcements of compatability problems, new versions, and upgrades, for software I own - but I don't want those services to come with ads for unrelated products.

Can companies use email to make new contacts? Certainly, if and only if the people emailed have just explicitly asked for information about such products. If I post to comp.lang.c, I am not asking for information about C compilers. If I post to comp.lang.c, asking for advice on finding a DOS-based C compiler, not only am I off-topic, but I am requesting contact (once!) from companies or individuals who can provide such.

Comments? Questions? Email seebs@plethora.net.