Monday, November 01, 2010

One Spammer Down, Thousands to Go

The people who invented what we now know as the Internet almost certainly did not intend for it to be used mostly for sending unwanted messages that cost the recipient a lot more than the sender, seldom get read, and serve almost no redeeming social purpose. But according to the Wikipedia article on e-mail spam, 78% of all e-mail messages sent over the Internet are the mass-produced, often illegal type of advertising known as spam. Last month, this incredible flood of junk slowed down by about a fifth after Russian authorities took actions against Igor A. Gusev, the head of Gusev, who fled the country after his house was raided Sept. 27, ran as a kind of spam wholesaler, paying “retail” spammers to send junk e-mails. Once his website closed, many senders of spam saw no point in carrying on and shut down, at least temporarily. Experts cite this as the main cause of about a 20% decrease in the volume of spam worldwide. However, they expect that other entrepreneurs in this sordid activity will soon show up to take up the slack left by Gusev’s departure.

The Internet has taken its place alongside power grids, water-supply systems, and snail mail as one of the modern-day utilities we all rely on. But I was amazed to learn that nearly four-fifths of all e-mails sent are spam. If I consider what fraction of snail mail delivered to my door is in the same category, however, it’s not so surprising.

Every form of unsolicited advertising entails some effort, however minor, on the part of the intended recipient. Even ignoring billboards on the freeway takes a bit of mental effort, although it’s so miniscule as to be negligible. Throwing away physical pieces of paper that come in the postal mail is a more substantial time-and-effort sink, although one’s expenditure is limited to the reading needed to save the desirable or necessary things such as bills and toss the rest. But the main cost of snail-mail advertising is borne by the sender.

Not so for spam. As the Wikipedia article on e-mail spam points out, spam is equivalent to postage-due advertising, since the per-message cost to the spammer is an insignificant fraction of what it costs the recipient to deal with spam, either through blocking filters or the old-fashioned way of selecting and deleting it. Either way, the estimated cost to the recipient per spam message is about ten cents, which multiplied by the many billions of spams per year means that U. S. businesses alone spend on the order of $20 billion a year that they would not have to spend if spam weren’t such a problem. And this doesn’t even begin to address the other issues connected with spam, such as the illegal “botnets” set up by spammers to send most of the stuff, the phishing attacks that many spam messages contain, and the viruses and other malware that spam can infest your computer with.

So why has this pernicious situation been allowed to develop? One big problem is the prevailing U. S. law governing spam, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. This law sets certain standards for spam in order for it to be legal, such as truth in the subject line and no forged addresses. As long as spam meets these fairly low standards, it is not illegal, at least according to Federal law, which pre-empted most state laws about spam. CAN-SPAM is a lot more lenient than many European laws against spam, and since the U. S. is the place where much spam originates (or at least is sent from by botnets, which are themselves illegal), our relatively lax laws exacerbate the problem for the rest of the world. Since spammers easily can live in one country, conduct their business transactions in a second country, and do their technical operations in several other places around the world, combating the problem in an organized way requires international cooperation. And unless things get really serious, such as the prospect of some kind of organized attack on a nation’s Internet infrastructure, ordinary spam is not something that attracts the attention of the limited resources of international law enforcement organizations.

All the same, it is too bad that the present Internet structure makes it so easy for spammers to get away with their nefarious activities. Engineers like efficiency, and to see nearly 4/5 of a resource go to something that is usually illegal, almost never succeeds in the sense of generating responses, and does nothing but annoy most recipients and cost them money to get rid of, is just a shame. It may be too late to do much about it, such as redesigning the Internet to make unsolicited emails harder to send. There are occasional discussions about redoing the fundamental technical structure of the Internet, right down to the protocols, but this would be like switching the world’s electric utilities from AC to DC, a huge production that would not be easy to carry out. Short of that, I suppose we will all just have to regard spam as one of those necessary evils like noise in communications channels. Noise is due to fundamental physical laws, while spam derives ultimately from choices people make. The fact that some people will make wrong or evil choices seems to be as reliable as the law of gravity, though. It was G. K. Chesterton who said thatz the Christian doctrine of original sin—the idea that everyone is born with the ability to sin—is the only one for which there is abundant empirical evidence. And spam seems to bear that out.

Sources: The actions taken against Gusev and its consequences are described in an Oct. 28, 2010 article at

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