A cure for spam, but do we want one?

Why do otherwise rational human beings believe that putting a demanding, rude and threatening message at the end of a nice email will coerce you into keeping their messages private?

The best thing about writing an opinion column is that I get to write pretty much whatever I want without getting prosecuted. Right or wrong, I’m allowed my opinion.

Another good thing is that from time to time it’s okay for me to write things that are objective facts, rather than just opinions. For example, it’s my opinion that the signatures one often finds on the bottom of emails demanding that you respect the privacy of the sender are an annoying waste of bandwidth, but it is an objective fact that they’re not legally binding contracts and that you can usually completely ignore them and do whatever the hell you like with the contents.

Which raises a question – why do otherwise rational human beings believe that putting a demanding, rude and threatening message at the end of a nice email will coerce you into keeping their messages private. Time for an example:


This eMail and any attachments are intended solely for the named addressee(s) only. It contains confidential and/or privileged information which should not be copied or disclosed without the consent of xyz. If you are not the intended recipient or if you have received this eMail in error, you must not copy, distribute, disclose or take any action in reliance on it (or any part of its contents). In such case, you should inform xyz immediately by eMail or telephone +65 0000000 and delete this eMail and any attachments from your system.”

I’m not a lawyer, and I’m sure that someone will correct me if I’m wrong (someone usually does), but I seem to remember something about a contract being something that two or more parties must enter into, and that each party must derive some benefit from it.

Unless one has entered into a contract with an individual or company agreeing to be bound by such notices they are nothing more than a waste of bandwidth. If, in error, I receive a message containing such a notice I am under no constraint whatsoever to follow the instructions in the notice. If the notice was worded politely I might tend towards compliance, but this isn’t polite; it’s demanding and rude. Further, it’s insulting in that it assumes that you can be coerced by the mere presence of legalese. How dare somebody I’ve never met before tell me that I, “must not” do something. I’ve never met them before, I’ve not entered into a contract with them, so I can do what ever the hell I like.

If the notice were worded like this I’d be much more inclined to comply:

“Notice: If this message has reached you in error, or you’re not the intended recipient, then we apologise for wasting your bandwidth, and would appreciate it if you’d notify us of the mistake so that we can attempt to rectify it. This isn’t meant to be an unsolicited email, and replying to it won’t get you added to our spam lists. The contents of this message may be confidential and/or privileged, and we’d like to keep them that way. If you feel that for whatever reason you can’t keep it confidential we’d appreciate the opportunity to discuss that issue with you. Thanks, xyz”.


I recently read an article in Business 2.0 magazine suggesting that if the world actually managed to stop spam this year (somewhat unlikely) the IT industry might enter an even worse slump. ISPs currently have to handle spam, and to do that they need lots of processors, bandwidth, hard disk space and filtering software.

There are 7.3 billion spam messages sent every day – around 40% of the world’s total email is spam. If spam were stopped then the ISPs would have a huge excess of capacity and wouldn’t need to upgrade for perhaps another year or two. This would have quite a profound effect on the already punch-drunk storage industry, and may see the end of many high-bandwidth providers. Valkyrie rain from the sky, rivers of fire flow from the mountains and aliens attack the Whitehouse – you get the idea; this is a bad thing.

Is it true though? Would the ending of spam really imperil the industry? We’ve spent so long talking about how annoying it all is, and how much time we’re all spending dealing with it, but it seems that spam is not just part of the cost of doing business. Spam has nearly doubled the cost of maintaining and using email. Getting rid of it will reduce expenditure in this area, and right now the last thing the world economy needs is to have organisations spending less money.

But, can we really kill spam? One of the most discussed methods of doing so is to raise the cost of sending an email. Most models have the destination machine loaded with a system that can deliver code to the source system. This code must be run, and the results submitted, before the server will accept each message from the source. The code is computationally expensive, so that it costs little more for a corporation to send its usual volume of email, but the delays for a spammer would be unacceptable. If you send a couple of thousand emails a day then it could cost you a couple of thousand seconds extra to send them, but if you send a few million …

It would take a new internet standard to allow this system to work. It’s not that difficult to implement, especially using a language and model already designed for this sort of thing, like Java applets. But, if companies like Cisco see this as a threat to their revenues we can expect the standards bodies to take quite a while to sort this one out.

Dollery is a partner at GreenPulse in Wellington. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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