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Spam, Spam, Spam, Lovely Spam

Brian Hayes

The Price of Spam

Purely technical remedies are not the only option for controlling spam. There are also legal and economic maneuvers, as well as a few tricks of social engineering.

At last count 26 states had enacted some form of law imposing sanctions on bulk e-mail, but many spam opponents are lukewarm about these remedies, worrying that regulating the spam business will tend to legitimize it. Most of the laws take an "opt-out" approach, meaning it's the recipient's responsibility to get off the mailing list rather than the sender's responsibility to obtain permission first. The guidelines adopted by the European Union require an "opt-in" mechanism. But whatever the details of the law, enforcement is always problematic because e-mail crosses jurisdictional boundaries so readily.

Another legal tactic is to forbid concealing or disguising the origin of e-mail, on the principle that spam can usually be stopped if it can be traced back to its true source. Proposed changes in the Internet protocols for transporting e-mail would have the same effect, making it more difficult to send messages with a forged identity.

Economic remedies would shift the cost of spam from the recipients back onto the senders. It now costs only $99 (according to some spam I received) to spew out a million e-mails. At that price it could well be profitable to irk and inconvenience 999,900 people in order to swindle the most gullible 100. A small tax or fee imposed on each message might restore the balance. Paying a penny per message, the ordinary user would hardly notice the charge, but a spammer sending 100 million e-mails would face a bill of $1 million. The catch again is enforcement and jurisdiction.

Scott E. Fahlman has proposed a variation in which the fee would be paid directly to the recipient. Under this plan, e-mail software would accept a message from unknown correspondents only if the sender agreed to pay for "interrupt rights." The charge could be waived retroactively at the recipient's option, so that nonspammers would never actually have to pay.

Most of the social and economic anti-spam schemes would work only if a large majority of e-mail users were to adopt them. Assembling that majority is the challenge. Indeed, if we could achieve universal agreement on the issue of spam, there would be no need for strategy at all. The very simplest approach would suffice: We could just say no. In the end, all that's needed to defeat spam is for everyone to ignore it. But that doesn't seem to be happening so far. Looking at the 1,571 tantalizing offers in my mailbox, I don't feel the slightest itch to buy anything, but someone must be taking the bait.

Even if all the filters, blackhole lists and other measures fail to abolish spam, efforts to control it are still worth making. They can reduce the volume. They might even bring us better spam: In order to get through to reluctant or jaded readers, advertisers will have make their spam more appetizing. Live with it long enough, and you might develop a taste for the stuff. Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam.

© Brian Hayes

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