Nice shirt, shame about the spam

Spam. I can't think of any other word in cyberspace that brings out extremism in quite the same way that spam does. Either for it or against it, hate it or can't even understand it, spam is the worst element of the internet.

. I can’t think of any other word in cyberspace that brings out extremism in quite the same way that spam does. Either for it or against it, hate it or can’t even understand it, spam is the worst element of the internet. Spam means paying for something you don’t want, combined with the best — you just can’t stop the mail getting through.

In many ways, I’m lucky. I don’t get a lot of spam and I don’t know why. My name is out there in cyberspace. My one and only email address is listed on a number of sites, I use my name on a number of newsgroups, and still I don’t get a lot — maybe four or five easily spotted items a day. You know the kind — “Do you want to lose 10, 20, 30 kilos today?” or “Make Money Fast at Home” — and other less savoury beasts.

I didn’t realise quite how much a problem spam can be until I looked in the IDG Scoop database. This is the email address that invite those with anonymous news leads to post to — I hadn’t had access to it for a while but the boffins had fixed something and I could get in again. My god, it’s full of spam. There are the obvious: “Do you have Past Due Tax?”, “Accept Major Credit Cards!” “L@@k — Best Insurance Results!” not to mention the thousands of different kinds of drugs you can buy. There are the devious: “Re: Registration Confirmation” (don’t they know we never confirm anything?) “FW: Important” and the ever popular “You have Won the FIRST ROUND”. Then there are my favourites, the just-plain odd. “Do you know Someone with Digestive Problems?” and my all time favourite, “nice shirt”.

But while it’s fine to peek at spam in a setting like this — it’s free, it’s not in the way and I don’t have to if I don’t want to — it’s not like that for most people. Spam does get in, despite filters and keyword blocks and the like. it can be frustrating for the end user to have to wade through piles of this garbage that’s costing money to delete. For an employer, there’s the cost of each user spending 10 to 15 minutes a day deleting spam, a cost that soon adds up to a significant amount across the business.

So what’s the solution? I really don’t know. We have no laws governing this kind of thing, it seems, and no legislation in the parliamentary pipeline dealing with the issue. The Direct Marketing Association has released guidelines but they were roundly attacked by ISPs for failing to grasp the subtleties of “double opt-in” versus “opt—out”. Basically, if you have to opt out of a spam list that means you’ve already received the spam— and while sending your email address to a list to be removed is probably all right under New Zealand’s privacy laws, most of the spam comes from offshore and there are no guarantees your active email address won’t be added to some other list. Double opt-in means you sign up for mail on a website and then the site sends you an email to confirm it. If you don’t reply to confirm it you won’t get any mail. You need the second part of it to stop unscrupulous souls from signing their “friends” up for all kinds of spam.

There are still those who need convincing that spam is a problem. I spoke a while ago to Consumers' Institute head David Russell about it. He couldn’t understand why companies bother spamming. Surely they don’t want to upset their customers, he said, and he’s quite right — companies don’t want to alienate their customers. But when your customers are the 2% or 3% of spam recipients who actually might be interested in buying herbal Viagra, and that’s a good response rate, then it doesn’t matter if you upset millions of non-customers in the process. And I mean millions, of real people, cursing at their inbox. As spammers get smarter at acquiring those addresses, I will have to get smarter at hiding mine. That’s the real shame of it all, I think.

Brislen is IDGNet's reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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