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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The market will take care of things, of course. Eventually it will be glutted with spammers, profits will fall, and the amount of spam will stabilize. Unfortunately it seems likely to stabilize at a level higher than that at which people are comfortable being on the Internet at all.

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS to the spam crisis tend to be of two kinds: technological and legal. Those who want to maintain the libertarian ethos of the Internet urge that we simply put as much technological expertise to work fighting spam as the spammers do producing it. Paul Graham in the Internet magazine Network World, for instance, rightly says there are two ways of stopping spam: Keep it from entering your inbox, or keep spammers from sending it. Since spam relies on profit-making, Graham says, "if you solve the first problem, you also solve the second."

Unfortunately, Graham's optimism will be totally unfounded as long as the cost of sending spam to a non-existent or blocked mailbox is zero. What's more, it is by no means certain that the sophistication of spam-blocking technology is outstripping the sophistication of spam-sending technology. Russian-invented programs called Jeems can enter vulnerable home computers, transform their own identities periodically, and send out hundreds or thousands of spam packets in a session, totally undetected. Vast efforts have already gone into technology to block spam, and they appear insufficient to deter it. The primary tool that exists today is the "Bayesian" filter, which seeks out words like "Viagra" and phrases like "online gambling." Spammers have long been able to evade such filters with subtle misspellings (TURN HER ON WITH HERBAL VIARGA!).

That's why several federal lawmakers urge legislation. Most of it is toothless. The RID-Spam Act, sponsored by Republican congressmen James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, would require commercial e-mailers to offer an "opt-out" choice to their targets. A spammer could be fined for continuing to solicit consumers who had explicitly requested to be left in peace. Anti-spam activists are unimpressed. Given the galaxy of addresses and identities used by most spammers, this would be far less effective than the "opt-in" model used in the European Union--where no company is supposed to send e-mail solicitations at all unless a customer has explicitly asked to be sent them.

Senators Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, have their own bipartisan opt-out bill that adds a demand for honesty in tag lines. Thus, a spammer couldn't pitch online gambling under the headline, BAD NEWS ABOUT YOUR MOTHER. Two thirds of spam mailings are fraudulent in some way, according to the Federal Trade Commission--including 44 percent that come from fictitious addresses. (Apologies to if I'm being unfair here.) The merit of the Wyden-Burns approach is that it allows us to prosecute many Internet abuses under the existing trade laws. Maybe that would help, since it is estimated that 90 percent of spam comes from about 200 practitioners. But maybe it wouldn't.

What's more, there are two separate problems with spam--the quantity of it and the quality of it--and the Wyden-Burns measure deals mostly with the former. A parent upset that his children are getting hundreds of solicitations to GET QUAALUDES WITHOUT A PRESCRIPTION every year is not going to be delighted when they're receiving "only" dozens. Which brings us to one of the great disappointments--perhaps the central disappointment--of the computer age. Americans were sold on the Internet as an educational tool, and have been cajoled by Al Gore and like-minded politicians into spending vast sums of money to subsidize it as such. But thanks to spam, the "information superhighway" has become a rather racy place for children to travel unsupervised.