Spam is a slang term that describes unsolicited commercial advertisements sent by e-mail over the Internet. Spam, which can be used as a noun or as a verb, is also known as junk e-mail or unsolicited bulk e-mail. According to Heather Newman in the Detroit Free Press, the term comes from a skit by the Monty Python comedy troupe, in which a group of Vikings chants "spam, spam, spam" to drown out all other conversation. It was adopted by early Internet users to describe annoying, unsolicited e-mail advertisements that crowd out legitimate communication. "Spam is an overwhelming fact of life for nearly every e-mail user," Newman wrote. "Some Internet postmasters say that more than half the traffic their computers handle is spam."
"The financial and psychological costs of spam are eroding the Internet's goodwill," Karen Rodriguez wrote in the Phoenix Business Journal. Spam causes problems for both e-mail users and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that offer access to the Internet to customers for a fee. Most e-mail users resent receiving spam messages because they fill up electronic mailboxes and are time-consuming to sort through. In addition, a large proportion of spam messages contain material that could be considered offensive or fraudulent. A survey of spam content conducted on behalf of Representative Gary Miller of California, co-sponsor of proposed legislation to ban spam, found that 30 percent consisted of pornographic materials, another 30 percent consisted of get-rich-quick schemes, and the remainder included a variety of questionable business proposals and gambling opportunities.
Companies that send out bulk e-mail defend the practice on several grounds. For example, they say that some small businesses cannot afford other forms of marketing. Sending bulk e-mail helps these businesses reach potential customers and compete with larger firms. Proponents of e-mail marketing also claim that their advertisements are a constitutionally protected form of free speech. "Spammers try to justify their actions by claiming that companies have the right to take advantage of the online market and that people have no right to filter their mail," Maria O'Daniel wrote in Computimes.
But opponents of spam argue that Internet users end up paying to receive unwanted advertisements. By sending bulk e-mail to thousands of recipients, spammers create an increase in the load placed on ISP mail servers. O'Daniel explained that ISPs must purchase bandwidth in order to connect their servers to the Internet. They buy bandwidth based on expected usage by their paying customers, and the cost accounts for a large percentage of their operating budgets. Spam ties up bandwidth and reduces processing speed, which causes an increase in costs for ISPs and a decrease in performance for their customers. So while it may cost a spammer only a few dollars to create and send an advertisement via e-mail, it may cost an ISP thousands of dollars to accommodate the spam. These costs are usually passed on to the ISP's customers, most of whom did not want to receive the spam in the first place.
Complaints from ISPs and Internet users have prompted several states to pass laws regulating spam. But many people claim that, due to the interstate reach of the Internet, federal action is also required. The U.S. government has considered various proposals to reduce spam. One such proposal would allow ISPs to sue in civil court and claim damages as high as $50 per message or $25,000 per day against companies that send unsolicited commercial e-mail over their servers. Other bills would require spammers to include a "reply to sender" option to allow recipients to opt out of receiving future e-mails, or would prohibit spammers from sending e-mail to people who register their addresses on a "global opt out" list compiled by the Federal Communications Commission.
Some experts claim that such laws might facilitate claims by large Internet companies like America Online, which can afford to take legal action against spammers, but would do little to help smaller, local ISPs. "Although state anti-spam legislation is designed to encourage ISPs to sue every time spammers clog e-mail servers and harass ISP customers, the providers have filed few if any lawsuits because the cost of litigation is too high and such cases are hard to prosecute," Rodriguez noted. "Spam is easy to create, and its purveyors are hard to find."
Most reputable ISPs have "acceptable use" policies that prohibit users from sending bulk commercial e-mail over their systems. Since spam is against the rules, some people think that spammers operate by breaking into an ISP's mail system and sending e-mail to everyone on the system. In reality, spammers obtain e-mail addresses from a wide range of legal sources, including business cards, newspaper articles, Web pages, member lists, customer lists, and message postings. They even collect jokes, chain letters, and other frequently forwarded e-mail messages that have hundreds of addresses on the top.
The first rule of reducing spam, according to Newman, is to limit the ways in which your e-mail address is exposed to the public. One possible method is to create a free e-mail account to use in situations where you must make your address public, such as posting messages to newsgroups. It is also a good policy to hide the addresses of recipients if you forward e-mail messages to large groups of people. Newman emphasized that you should never respond to spam or select an option that allows you to opt out of receiving future messages, because this proves that your e-mail is a working address and makes it more valuable to spammers.
Since sending spam is against the rules of most ISPs, it may be helpful to notify the originating ISP that someone is using their service to send spam. The best way to do this involves sending a copy of the offending message to the ISP's system administrator. "The administrators are the ones who are best able to deal with it," O'Daniel noted. "They will be grateful to hear from you—no one wants to be associated with spammers." Most ISPs will respond by terminating the spammer's account. This strategy is not always effective, however, because spammers are often difficult to locate. The worst offenders will "spoof" or create a false address for their messages, change identity frequently, and send spam from a number of different addresses.
It may also be helpful to inform your own ISP when you receive spam, so that the system administrator can filter out future messages from that address. Many e-mail programs also feature filtering capabilities. Finally, if you are bombarded with e-mail from a company with which you have done business, or you find out that such a company has sold your e-mail address to a spammer, you can boycott the company's products or send an e-mail of protest to the company president.
Hinde, Stephen. "Smurfing, Swamping, Spamming, Spoofing, Squatting, Slandering, Surfing, Scamming, and Other Mischiefs of the World Wide Web." Computers and Security. May 2000.
Hoover, Kent. "Spamming: Marketing Opportunity for Small Business or Costly Annoyance?" Pittsburgh Business Times. November 12, 1999.
Newman, Heather. "Do a Little Work to Give Spammer Unhappy Returns." Detroit Free Press. February 28, 2001.
Newman, Heather. "How to Can Net Spam—The Real Junk Mail." Detroit Free Press. February 21, 2001.
O'Daniel, Maria. "How to Handle E-Mail Spamming." Computimes. April 3, 2000.
Rodriguez, Karen. "Federal Lawmakers Propose Bill to End Spamming." Phoenix Business Journal. May 12, 2000.
SEE ALSO: Electronic Mail