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News & Press: Feature

Spam and Your Options

Saturday, August 16, 2003   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Charles Oriez

It is believed that sometime in March or April of this year, a major but sad milestone was reached when the majority of the mail passing over the Internet was spam.

Spam got its name from a famous Monty Python skit dealing with loud Vikings and a diner, but the name probably does a disservice by obscuring the definition of the problem. Spam is unsolicited bulk email, that is, messages sent via email, to large numbers of people, who didn't ask for it. The determining factor is consent, not content. A random Red Cross appeal to donate blood can be just as accurately considered spam as an email extolling the virtues of non-prescription Viagra. An email advocating the re-election of George Bush or election of Howard Dean is just as much spam as the mailing from Nigeria asking you to help an ex junta member's wife embezzle millions of dollars. If you didn't ask for it, and it was sent to you, it is spam.

It is even spam when you give your favorite football team your email address to confirm the on-line purchase of your season tickets and they think it would be nice to send you special promo offers from their clothing store and an unrelated soccer team. They never asked my permission to communicate with me on anything other than my season ticket purchase.

Spam comes with costs.

When your AOL mailbox starts getting too much spam, you change your mailbox. But then what happens to customers and friends who have your old address and can no longer reach you? Others change Internet Service Providers as a means of changing their address. Anyone engaged in business will tell you that keeping an existing customer is almost always cheaper than developing a new customer.

When AOL employs filters to block 2.3 billion pieces of spam a day, that effort comes with a cost. People spend time analyzing spam that evades the filters, and tweak them. People spend time dealing with customer complaints, and even non-customer complaints when the spam seems to originate from our ISP. If the spam wasn't rejected at the front door, your ISP spends money storing it until it is delivered to you, and you spend time downloading and evaluating it before deleting it, even if you delete it unread.

Spammers will tell you that you ought to opt out of their lists if you don't want on them. Even assuming that they are telling the truth (those who fight spammers will usually insist that "lying spammer" is redundant phraseology), opt out doesn't scale. The European Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (EuroCAUCE) is the leading anti-spam advocacy group in Europe. They once calculated the cost if some very small percentage of all businesses in Europe sent a spam to every person in Europe. If it took 6 seconds to find and use opt out instructions on every spam, you would not have time in a 40 hour week to do anything else. In addition, new companies would be forming and sending you spam faster than you could opt out.

Another cost is starting to show up as well, in a few courtrooms around the United States. An employee complains about the porn spam showing up in her company email from outside spammers. The company is unable or unwilling to install the necessary filters to block it. That's when your lawyers and the employee's lawyers start discussing settlements on her sexual harassment lawsuit, since the EEOC may view that as creating a hostile workplace.

The purpose of this series of articles is to discuss some of the current options for dealing with spam. Articles will include a legislative overview, technology options for fighting spam, how to complain effectively, a litigation overview, and how to perform due diligence to ensure that your company isn't doing business with a spam friendly ISP.

That last one can be important to you. As the problem of spam grows, many ISPs have made the decision to block all traffic from any ISP who knowingly hosts spammers. If that is your ISP, it's your traffic that gets refused, while your monthly checks help the pro-spam ISP stay in business and continue to support efforts to fill our mail boxes with spam. If, on the other hand, you want to participate in that boycott, or just protect your company from sexual harassment suits, see the article on technological solutions to spam.

Throughout this series of articles, I make reference to various web sites and other references, including both server and client tools. When I have the information to do so, I have placed links to these information sources and tools on the legislative page at I also intend to start a thread on the Issues and Answers Forum at the AITP Web site. If you have an opinion about the effectiveness or problems of any resource I've discussed, or one that you use that I have overlooked, take it to the forum.

Charles Oriez has an MS-CIS from the University of Denver and writes and speaks on email issues in the Denver area.

Looking for more information on Spam? Check out the next two articles in this series, "Spam Legislation” and "Technology Options for Fighting Spam,” published in the September/October 2003 issue of Information Executive.

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