Quoting Mr. Dennis:
So, what's the big deal about spam? I think a few well-meaning but uninformed politicians and advocacy groups have decided what's good for us, and in their zeal, they are trying to establish a new and unwarranted benchmark for the marketing channel we call the Internet, and for one of its components: e-mail.
Leaving aside for the moment the condescending nature of his characterization of anti-spam activists, let's examine the origin of Mr. Dennis' perceptions. His background is in the direct-marketing and mail-order business, and he sees spam as the modern-day equivalent of junk mail. This comparison falls flat in a number of ways.
We really have to fight this intrusion. E-mail is no less commercial speech than other forms of communication; e-mail is a new and--in some cases--a better way of quickly identifying, qualifying and servicing customers.
First of all, there is a vastly lower barrier to entry for spam than there is for junk mail. A company doing a direct-mail advertisement has to physically print all those advertisements, and spend the money on postage required for them to be delivered through the mails...and these costs go up linearly as the number of advertisements increases. A company engaging in spam advertising, however, incurs no printing or mailing costs, just charges for Internet service, which tend to be fairly constant even as the number of advertisements multiplies. (This is true in the United States, less so elsewhere, but the marginal costs are still vastly lower.)
This makes spamming a much more attractive proposition for the kind of businesses usually labeled "fly-by-night," who would not normally be inclined to launch a direct-mail advertisement campaign for their dubious wares (whether due to the cost, or other reasons). This is also supported by the major categories of spam E-mail messages, which are:
The fact that the number of would-be scam artists vastly outnumber the legitimate companies that might choose to use E-mail advertising virtually guarantees that Internet users will soon find themselves awash in spam.
- Tools and mailing lists for generating more spam
- Pornographic advertisements (to his credit, Mr. Dennis doesn't appreciate those)
- Get-rich-quick scams: multi-level marketing, "debt relief," etc.
- Products that almost certainly wouldn't live up to their claims if investigated by the FTC or Consumer Reports. Many of these are medical or health-related: human growth hormones, penis enlargers, diet drugs, etc.
- Related to the above, advertisements offering easy ways to get access to prescription drugs such as Viagra without a doctor's prescription (which is illegal under US law, and no doubt under the laws of many other countries)
Not only that, the expensive nature of direct-mail campaigns will encourage marketers using this form of advertising to closely "target" their advertising to their intended audience. For example, since I live in an apartment, I am unlikely to get direct-mail advertisements for roof repair, driveway maintenance, or other such products and services geared to homeowners. However, since I have subscribed to computer-related magazines and registered a number of commercial software products, I will get things in the mail like Dell catalogs. This incentive to target specific groups is nearly nonexistent for E-mail spammers, who will often send their junk to as many valid E-mail addresses as they can find, with little or no attempt to determine if their message is even appropriate. As an extreme example, I have personally received spam messages written in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean, none of which I speak or read. (In fact, my E-mail reader can't even display the Chinese and Korean messages properly.) Whatever message those E-mails intended to convey was completely wasted on me.
Mr. Dennis suggests that the Direct Marketing Association, or the Internet Advertising Bureau, or another such association could establish an "opt-out" list for E-mail, similar to the one the DMA maintains for direct mail advertisements. That might help, at least with advertisements coming from legitimate companies. But the "fly-by-night" purveyors are unlikely to be members of any of these organizations, and even less likely to honor any such "opt-out" list. And, since the shady characters far outnumber the people playing by the rules, the net effect would be a negligible drop in the total amount of spam in circulation.
Mr. Dennis also conveniently ignores the fact that, with E-mail, the primary cost of delivery is to the recipient, not the sender. This is more true in countries outside the US, where local phone calls, and hence Internet access, are often metered; still, the cost in time of downloading 50 E-mail messages, 40 of which are worthless spam (the equivalent of Mr. Dennis' "recyclable materials" in the junk-mail world) should be considered. (Specialty E-mail providers, such as wireless networks, may also impose per-minute or per-kilobyte charges for downloading E-mail.) Receiving advertising I don't want is already annoying enough; being forced to pay for receiving advertising I don't want is something else again.
In addition, many providers impose fixed-size limitations on E-mail boxes. With postal mail, if your mailbox fills up with incoming mail, the post office will take appropriate action, such as holding your excess mail at the post office for later pick-up. E-mail servers, however, will either bounce or discard mail that can't be delivered to a full mailbox, meaning that important messages may be lost. If I am, for any reason, unable to log on for several days, my mailbox could easily overflow with spam, and people attempting to send me important messages would have no recourse. In addition, if I subscribe to mailing lists that start receiving "bounce messages" because of the spam choking my in-box, they may choose to silently drop my subscription--an effective "denial of service attack" on the part of the spammers.
No discussion of spam would be complete without an examination of the underhanded tactics used by spammers to push out their "information and opportunities that e-mail marketing provides" (as Mr. Dennis puts it). Spammers "scrape" many E-mail addresses from Web sites, Usenet posts, and instant-messaging systems, making anyone participating in online discourse a potential target for unsolicited E-mail. They put bogus "removal instructions" in their messages, which merely serve to confirm the "live" status of an E-mail address, making it more valuable as a spam target. They hijack third-party servers, use throwaway ISP accounts, and employ other dirty tricks to get their spam in circulation, many of which can be construed as "theft of service." They label their messages with misleading Subject: lines and senders, in order to fool message filters. They forge their return addresses, making it difficult to trace the origins of messages. Many of these tactics, if tried using ordinary postal direct-mail advertising, would quickly bring about charges of mail fraud.
It has only been within the past couple of years that lawmakers have started to realize the greater potential that E-mail marketing has for these kinds of abuse, and hence the greater protection that is required for consumers. Mr. Dennis would have us throw that all away in the name of the spam he loves. He suggests that those of us who receive spam we don't like just "hit Delete."
Well, Mr. Dennis, my Delete key is getting pretty worn by now. I employ two independent spam-filtering systems for my incoming E-mail (a commercial service through my ISP, and a procmail-based solution for mail downloaded to my workstation), and still some spam messages make it into my in-box. Changing my E-mail address is not an option; it would disrupt my communications and my life to no end at this point. And I know I'm not alone.
Tell you what, Mr. Dennis: give me your E-mail address, and I'll just forward all my spam to you, since you seem to like it so much. No? Unacceptable, you say? Then maybe you shouldn't be so quick to force it on the rest of us.