Could Spam Kill Off E-Mail?

WASHINGTON--A majority of the United States' 126 million e-mail users say they are losing trust in e-mail, and one in four has cut back usage because of the daily onslaught of spam.

The findings, detailed in a new report by the research organization Pew Internet & American Life Project, offer yet more examples of how spam is wreaking havoc on the "killer app" of the Internet and proving expensive for businesses.

"People just love e-mail, and it really bothers them that spam is ruining such a good thing," says Deborah Fallows, author of the Pew report, "Spam: Hurting email and degrading the Internet environment."

Taking a Toll

For many people, spam has compromised the integrity of e-mail, the report finds. As more e-mail users apply filters to block spam, they inadvertently block messages from family and friends as well. Others note that spam clutters their in-boxes, leading them to overlook legitimate e-mail. Other highlights from the report demonstrate how spam is eroding the quality of U.S. consumers' online experience:

  • 75 percent of e-mail users are concerned that they can't stop the flow of spam, regardless of the measures they've taken.
  • 70 percent say spam has made their online experience unpleasant or annoying.
  • 55 percent say they get so much junk e-mail that they struggle to find the messages they want.
  • About one in three say the contents of their in-box are 80 percent spam.
  • Spam tends to hit personal e-mail accounts more than work accounts, most of which are subject to screening mechanisms that block much unsolicited e-mail.

Here to Stay?

The survey results also hint that the unsolicited e-mail blitz will become a mainstay of online life. The fact is, enough people are clicking through the spam offers to convince marketers that they are reaching their targets.

Seven percent of e-mail users, or more than 8 million Americans, say they have ordered a product or service offered in an unsolicited e-mail. One in three users say they have clicked on a link in unsolicited e-mail to get more information.

Bulk e-mailers say that even a 0.0001 percent positive response rate constitutes a break-even point, making spam worthwhile, according to the report. The fact that even a tiny minority of users respond to unsolicited e-mail raises the question whether some of the messages offering legitimate products can be labeled spam, Fallows says.

The report also grapples with the definition of spam, noting that a law would have to accurately define the term to deal with the problem effectively. Overwhelmingly, users consider spam to be "unsolicited commercial e-mail from a sender they do not know or cannot identify," the report says.

Users also say spam is also a function of content. According to the Pew survey, 92 percent say adult content is spam, and 89 percent consider money-making proposals to be spam. Eighty-one percent consider unsolicited product or services offers to be spam.

Magnitude of Spam

Although the volume of junk e-mail messages is hard to estimate, a best guess based on other studies suggests that some 15 billion messages are spam--or about half of the more than 30 billion messages exchanged daily.

According to the Pew study, filtering company Brightmail recently measured more than 7.5 million spam attacks, each ejecting between 100 to millions of individual e-mail messages in each attack. Despite this volume, users "only see the tip of the iceberg," the report states, thanks to ISPs that deflect much of the spam before it hits subscribers.

America Online and the Microsoft Network, two of the largest ISPs, report that they divert a daily incursion of 2.4 billion spam messages from their subscribers' in-boxes. AOL estimates this volume translates to an average of 67 messages per in-box per day, or up to 80 percent of its incoming e-mail traffic. According to the report, all of the major ISPs underwrite "huge outlays for spam control." In a separate recent finding reported by USA Today, ISPs' costs of managing spam are passed along with an average of a $2 increase in a subscriber's monthly Internet service subscription bill.

Costs of Spam

Estimates for spam's price tag vary broadly, from $50 to $1400 per worker per year. Its estimated annual costs to U.S. businesses range from $10 to $87 billion.

Other costs are felt by online businesses that say e-mail marketing has gotten a bad rap because of spam. These businesses say they've been unfairly lumped with spammers, and that their discreet and legitimate e-mail marketing and communications are not reaching their audience because of spam-filtering technology.

Spam has spawned a thriving industry. Businesses compile e-mail address lists and sell them. Software makers sell inexpensive applications that enable illegal spam activities, such as disguising sender identities and harvesting e-mail addresses.

But most legitimate marketers should welcome legislative measures that would choke off spam, says Nancy Costopulos, a senior director at the American Marketing Association, a professional marketing association.

"There will be more and more regulation for e-mail, and it will cost businesses money to comply with the regulations," Costopulos says. "But it can't be a self-regulating industry anymore. I would be glad if we can eradicate spam so we can break through the noise. All marketers should be in favor of that."

Aside from monetary costs, Fallows says spam exacts social costs, such as increasing restraints in the openness of the Internet. "The Internet is based on this open system," she says. "It's egalitarian and everyone is accessible. Spam will change that. People will be less accessible to each other."

Fallows says the changes are a departure from how the Internet was intended to operate. With the rise of spam, the Internet will become "a more protected and closed environment than it is right now," she adds.

Dealing With Spam

Most e-mail users are resigned to the incursion of spam into their online life, the Pew study suggests. For many, it's just like any other annoyance, such as telemarketing calls.

Most people deal with spam messages by deleting them, and more than 65 percent preempt spam by opting out of e-mail lists. Most e-mail users are reticent about giving out their e-mail addresses; 73 percent of users surveyed say they avoid providing that information.

In fact, using restraint in giving out e-mail addresses is the way most people try to fight spam, the survey finds. Also, 69 percent avoid posting their e-mail addresses on the Web, to avoid harvesters. About 14 percent use creative screen names to make it less possible that a computer can generate their e-mail address.

In addition to technological remedies to fight spam, various organizations, legislators, and lawyers are working to curb the spam explosion. The Federal Trade Commission, some states, ISPs, and a few individuals have brought suits against the worst offenders.

In the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, there are half a dozen bills pending designed to reduce spam. The fight against spam has created unusual alliances. For example, Microsoft and Yahoo are sharing their intelligence to combat spam. Direct marketers and spam-filtering makers have united to develop standards for dealing with spam. And the liberal Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) has found an ally in the Christian Coalition, which supports his antispam legislation.

"E-mail is an important form of communication that Americans have come to rely on. The study underscores the need for legislation that gives consumers control over their e-mail boxes," says Paula Bruening, a spokesperson for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital civil liberties group.

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