The Magazine

You've Got Spam

From the June 16, 2003 issue: The inundation of unsolicited e-mail advertising, and what to do about it.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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WE ARE GOING TO NEED a new way to think about spam, those importunate unsolicited e-mails advertising products, pandering to vices and insecurities, and bearing headers like GET LOLITA OUT OF DEBT BY ADDING THREE INCHES TO YOUR MORTGAGE! The problem is changing before our very eyes. Shortly after the turn of the year, I logged on to America Online's spam report and read that the company's new blocking software had for the first time diverted 1 billion unwanted e-mails in a single day. As this article went to press, I signed on again and found that AOL now routinely has days on which it blocks 2.3 billion pieces. When I wrote an article on spam in late April of this year, the freshest data showed that 70 percent of AOL's e-mail was spam. By the time David Streitfeld of the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece on the same subject a month later, the figure had risen to 80 percent. (It had been 50 percent in January.) Brightmail, which makes spam-blocking software, estimates that between January 2002 and March 2003, the percentage of e-mails that are spam nearly tripled, from 16 to 45 percent. Yahoo!, according to Streitfeld, has seen its spam level quintuple in the past year.

My mailbox at The Weekly Standard, spam-free a year ago, is now more than 98 percent unsolicited mail, entailing a 15-minute discard operation at the beginning of every working day. No one writing me a letter to the address listed on our website should count on its reaching me. I've begun a gradual retreat from office e-mail, and will soon conduct my correspondence the way I did when The Standard was founded in 1995--via telephone and the U.S. Postal Service. Many Americans have made a similar retreat, finding that the extraordinary efficiencies that e-mail brought in the first half-decade they used it have evaporated--and in some cases have turned into inefficiencies. According to Britain's New Statesman, 13 percent of e-mail users have changed their addresses since the start of the year, in order to escape spam.

As the size of the problem changes, so does its nature. Two years ago spam was a joke. A year ago it was an annoyance. And a few weeks ago, Earthlink executive David Baker told a reporter that spam "has the potential to render the Net virtually unusable."

Spam is increasing because it is an easy way for dumb people--and a safe way for dishonest people--to make money. Once you have a reliable mailing list (and it is possible to buy target lists for as little as $500 per million names), then you can operate a permanent spamming operation at marginal cost approaching zero. This, in turn, means that response rates approaching zero can still turn a profit. A figure commonly bandied about is that only 1 in every 100,000 targets need respond to allow a spammer to make money. One occasionally reads of spammers getting rich off a 1-per-200,000 rate. When a spammer sends out a billion unwanted e-mails a day, as Alan Ralsky of Michigan and Boca Raton does, according to Computerworld magazine, he can get very rich indeed.

The addresses are practically all the spammer pays for. All the other costs are externalized, falling on consumers, other businesses, and government. Business groups estimate $9 billion in productivity will be lost to spam this year. Consumers pay for spam through time lost deleting and through phone bills while they do it, telecom companies subsidize spam through the bandwidth they build, Internet service providers must install new machines to accommodate it, and everyone pays for spam in the slowdown of Internet traffic.

What a line of work! Many businesses receive invisible subsidies, but probably none defends its privilege by shoveling out such a steaming-hot pile of libertarian malarkey as the spam trade. One would expect this from lobbies like the Direct Marketing Association and, who decry the "mob mentality" of anti-spam activists. But there is also an extraordinary self-righteousness on the part of the mass e-mailers themselves. Spammer Bob Dallas told the New York Times that blocking mass, unsolicited e-mails "is against everything America stands for. The consumer should be the one in control of this." In congressional hearings last month, Ronald Scelson, the "Cajun Spammer," who sends over 200 million pieces of junk e-mail a day, complained that AOL and other Internet service providers were trammeling our rights as Americans. "The carriers right now," Scelson warned, "are deciding and filtering . . . whether you're going to read and see your mail or not. This is censorship. I was brought up and fought for this and still fight for this because I believe in freedom." The guy telling you WHERE TO MEET HORNY CHICKS IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD only looks like a pornographer. He's actually Washington crossing the Delaware.