SPAM: The Internet’s Achilles Heal

Author: Martin Paredes

The dreaded morning ritual is about to start, I take a sip of my coffee and slowly, ever so timidly I open my mail. There, just as it is every morning, SPAM stares me in the face. No, not the WWII lunchmeat we are all so familiar with, but the insidious kind of SPAM that only the Internet can generate, hundreds upon hundreds of unsolicited junk mail.

Every morning I wade through at least 200 e-mails soliciting my money for all sorts of products. Of these, only 30 or so are actual e-mails intended for me. The other 85% is unsolicited commercial e-mail and pornographic material that is outright disgusting. The Internet’s promise of a streamlined, free-flow of information has turned into a nightmare of sensory overload with the deluge of marketers’ abuse of the Internet.

If SPAM remains unchecked it will eventually bring about the destruction of the Internet, as we know it today. SPAM, or unsolicited commercial advertising is usually promoting quasi-legal or even illegal products to unsuspecting consumers. Not, all commercial advertising is SPAM, there are some legitimate advertisers out there. The distinction between the two is that legitimate advertising is actual advertising you have signed up to receive. Unfortunately, SPAMMERS are unscrupulous individuals that lie to consumers and tell them that they had signed up to receive the information on some site, when in fact the consumer never gave permission to the SPAMMER. SPAM is usually composed of chain letter promotions, pyramid schemes, phone sex offers and tools for you to become your very own SPAMMER. The deluge of e-mail solicitation is slowly deteriorating the promise of the Internet.

SPAM has become such a big problem for Internet users’ because of the ease of use and the relative little expense incurred by the marketer. Sending thousands of messages each hour costs the marketer less than $20.00 a month in some cases. As more and more new Internet surfers join the ranks of Internet users, marketers have access to more potential victims. As the novices become more educated on Internet etiquette, they begin to ignore potential marketers thus forcing the marketers to resort to outright fraud in order to get you to open the advertisements. Tricks employed by the SPAMMERS range from masking the true content of the message with fictitious subject lines to actually making the junk e-mail look like it originated from a family friend.

According to a January 2001 study conducted by the Commission of the European Communities, SPAM costs Internet users billions of dollars. Other figures are more conservative but all indicate that the costs are significant and are paid for by the average Internet consumer. The greatest cost though, is not financial but the actual damage SPAM causes the development and future implementation of the Internet. In order for consumers to depend on the Internet as their primary means of communication, they need to feel secure in the knowledge that the Internet will be there to serve their needs well into the future in an economical and efficient manner. The millions of unsolicited e-mails that clog our networks daily, slowly deteriorates the efficiency of the network and threatens to bring the Net to a screeching halt.

Many advocates of the Internet petition governments to intervene to solve this avalanche of advertising. Unfortunately, the Internet was designed with the premise of allowing individuals the unimpeded ability to exchange ideas without government and industrial interference. By advocating government intervention we allow governments to impede our flow of information and create a community that no longer transcends international borders. If instead of advocating the creation of new laws to tame the “cyber-west”, we as members of the Net community demand that our respective governments just enforce current laws that are already in the books, we go a long way in solving the problem.
Trade and economic laws already in place in the majority of the countries are already capable of handling the problem of SPAM. For example, most countries already have laws in place against fraud. If a marketer misrepresents a product or service, or lies to sell the product, then the laws of fraud could be applied against the perpetrators. If a marketer peddles pornography on the Net, then laws in both the sending and the receiving country could be invoked to protect the morality of the citizenry. Detractors of this will rightly point to the difficulty of enforcing one country’s laws on another country’s citizenship.

Fortunately, countries have traditionally created treaties in order help each other enforce laws transparently across borders. Much work is still left to do on this, but murder is murder in almost any country. Fraud perpetuated against another is fraud no matter the language used to commit it, so applying established laws only serves the community at large. As the countries begin to apply their laws, net citizens can begin to act responsively in order to help curtail the marketer’s abuse.

Marketers play a numbers game when they send out thousands of e-mails. By responding to an unwanted solicitation, net users unwittingly empower the marketer. Considering the cost of sending out thousands of e-mails, if less then .05% responds to the solicitation and if each response generates 50¢ of revenue, then the marketer is empowered to make more money by being a nuisance to others. Keeping in mind that the nature of the SPAMMER is such that they have no respect for others, even responding to those, “remove from the list” only gives the marketer more power to abuse the system.

By putting those messages on their advertisements, marketers deceive unsuspecting targets into revealing their true e-mail addresses. In order for the marketer to make money, they need to get people to pay attention to their pitch. I make it a rule not to purchase anything from any company or individual that markets through SPAM. No matter how good the deal, I just click ‘delete’ and move on to the next message. Sometimes, legitimate companies fall into the SPAM trap by listening to bad advise and in turn they suffer the same response from me. I now make it a habit to mentally keep a list of companies that SPAM my account, if and when I am interested in purchasing a product they peddle, I will actually avoid doing business with them and move on to a competitor.

By using our purchasing power against the marketers and demanding that existing laws be applied, we can take back control of the people’s Internet and leave the government out of it. When the message reaches the SPAMMERS, they will eventually see the futility in their actions as the money begins to dwindle to nothing and they will disappear from the Net. The power is in our hands; we just need to wield it in unison.

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