By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
But is it Spam?
E-mail remains one of the more popular services on the Internet. If you have Internet access, you usually have an E-mail address or can easily get one. Some people use E-mail infrequently to correspond with their family or friends, but many people use E-mail to support their business, professional, or educational activities. Shortly after the invention of E-mail there came the bane of many of today's Internet denizens: unsolicited E-mail.
In the U.S., we get unsolicited postal mail pretty frequently. Some are annoyed by this "junk" mail, however, most deal with it by tossing it in the trash or recycle bin, possibly unopened. For some reason, junk E-mail often elicits a much less casual response from those that receive it. I've never heard of anyone threatening to sue because they received unsolicited pizza coupons in the mail, yet a single unsolicited E-mail can cause what appears to be a disproportionate response.
Spam through the Ages*
In the early, almost prehistoric Internet days -- around 10-12 years ago -- a term was coined for E-mail sent unsolicited or to an inappropriate forum. The common name is Spam, I guess because such E-mail is unwanted and possibly unpalatable. The problem was particularly apparent on mailing lists that were created to discuss a specific area of common interest. Mailing lists were captive audiences and too much of a temptation for some that felt they had to get their message across by any means. Spam E-mail was often sent to multiple mailing lists or news groups. In those days of limited bandwidth, even a single unsolicited message could disrupt the normal communication supported by mailing lists.
It wasn't long before mailing list managers found techniques for reducing unwanted messages and mailing list software was given features to help eliminate Spam messages. In the early days of the Internet, the online community was also quite small compared to today, and there was an established etiquette (or netiquette :) for mailing list communication and quite a bit of peer pressure to follow that etiquette. Because access points were limited, it was also hard to remain totally anonymous. Your personal identity might not be known, but it was an easy matter to track your message to its access point.
Today, unsolicited E-mail is usually directed at individual addresses. While it is possible to track most E-mail back to its source, entry points are so easily available that closing down a particular address will not stem someone's ongoing activity. Free E-mail accounts are available by the handful, and not all Internet service providers abide by the same etiquette that has been followed since early Internet history. There is also another incentive for people to send unsolicited E-mail: for some, the Internet represents a large market of people who are available to buy a particular product or service they want to sell. Today, unsolicited commercial E-mail is by far the most common complaint of those who tend to complain about such things.
Yeah, but is it Spam?
I often wonder why some people react so emotionally to unsolicited E-mail. Perhaps they feel that E-mail is part of their personal space, and unsolicited E-mail is an invasion. Perhaps it is because, unlike postal mail, you often can get drawn in by unsolicited E-mail before you realize what it is, and the disappointment at spending the 5-15 seconds reading something you don't care about is too much to bear. Perhaps it is just the very real desire not to be bothered. I guess this question requires the attention of trained psychologists before it can be authoritatively answered.
Over the years, the meaning of the term Spam has seemed to evolve. Different people define the term differently. Some people think that any unsolicited E-mail is Spam. Some think that Spam is only unsolicited commercial E-mail. Some would claim that not all unsolicited E-mail is Spam. They feel that if they find your E-mail address by a legal means, then it is not unethical to send you E-mail you never requested. Some even adopt such activity as an academic research pursuit. What is the harm done by a single unsolicited E-mail? Is it the time wasted reaching for the delete key? Is it the diversion of attention from more interesting material? Is it the increased annoyance of someone trying to sell you something in which you have no interest?
Is it the combined bandwidth used to send communication of doubtful effectiveness?
There is certainly no legal definition of Spam, and no total agreement in the Internet community as to what falls within the range of Spam. Spam can definitely be a nuisance to service providers. A set of several thousand messages going out from or coming to a site can greatly interfere with delivery of the "normal" messages. Those who send unsolicited messages often take advantage of mail servers that will relay their messages to the Internet recipients, even though they have no affiliation with that server and usually no authorization to use it in such a manner. Mail transfer programs now have sophisticated rules that can be used to help prevent such unauthorized transmission, but there are so many servers on the Internet that there are still plenty that will let Spam messages through.
What's an Internet Denizen to do?
I have bad news for the rabidly anti-Spam: Spam is here to stay. You can legislate against Spam in the United States and that will just push Spam off shore. You can send complaints to abuse and postmaster and webmaster and the domain contact for the offending sites through which Spam has been delivered to you, and all that does is take up more network bandwidth and soak up the time of usually sympathetic system administrators who are just trying to keep their little acre of Internet running.
Some people maintain filters on their E-mail to ignore messages which don't meet a particular criteria. To really guard against Spam, you should never give your E-mail address to anyone that you don't know and trust, and you should probably tell those people not to give out your address. This is certainly a solution, but seems a bit too insular to me. Once you send E-mail, you have no control over where that E-mail will end up. It may be forwarded intentionally or not, and end up in the hands of someone who doesn't know to guard your secret E-mail address. If you want to discourage unsolicited messages, it is wise to be very restrictive about putting your E-mail address on application or registration forms, or Web sites. You must also be careful about subscribing to open mailing lists or posting messages to news groups.
A Fifty Percent Solution?
One thing you can do is ignore Spam. Unsolicited noncommercial E-mail sent from a valid E-mail address usually has a person on the other end of that address who will remove you from their mailing list if you ask. Some of the more ethical commercial entities will provide you the same respect (although, you have to be careful, because some remove requests just serve as an address verification for some less than ethical Spammers). But maybe for most of it, you can just delete and ignore. If Spam never elicits any response, then there is no economic incentive to do it, and it may fade away on its own. Keeping Spam in the limelight just encourages those who are looking for a way to get attention. In other words, don't reinforce bad behavior by re-broadcasting an unsolicited message and furthering the Spammer's influence.
I think that a partial solution to Spam would be to make the Internet a less anonymous place. If you can be held accountable for your behavior, you are more likely to stay within the bounds of established etiquette. Most postal mailers must take you off of their mailing list if you request it and you can pursue a legal remedy if they don't. Their are also definite rules as to what can be sent via U.S. Mail and how it can be sent. Mail fraud is a crime and the U.S. Postal service is very serious about guarding the integrity of their delivery system. Alas or hurrah, there is no such governing authority on the Internet. With the freedom of the Internet comes the need to tolerate (OK, maybe put up with) behavior that you might find annoying. In other words, preserve the freedom of the Internet: just hit delete.
* We have written all sorts of things about Spam "through the ages" in Benchmarks Online and, earlier, in Benchmarks NewsJournal. Here is a sample: