Editorial for Monday — August 04, 2003

• A plague of spam


A plague of spam

A recent study has found that the average U.S. office worker gets 13.3 spam messages a day on his or her computer. Funny, we would have thought it was more.

According to Nucleus Research Co., the cost to American business for dealing with all this unsolicited commercial e-mail approaches $87 billion a year. The firm’s research director told The New York Times that if it takes 30 seconds to review and eliminate each unwanted message, each worker is spending 61/2 minutes a day dealing with spam, or 1.4 percent of the work day, at a cost of $874 per worker per year. For 100 million workers, that’s $87 billion in wasted time.

That figure may be exaggerated – it takes most people about 2 seconds to whack a spam – but there are also philosophical and legal arguments against spam: It is an invasion of privacy, and the Federal Trade Commission says two-thirds of the messages are deceptive, bogus or offensive. Tricks are used to take advantage of the unsophisticated. And even if you’re computer savvy, it’s still an unwarranted nuisance.

How bad is spam? Even direct marketers, who represent telemarketers and people who fill your regular mailbox with junk mail, won’t defend spam. “Spam is fundamentally robbery,” Robert Dirskovski, head of interactive media for the Direct Marketing Association, says in the new issue of Internet Magazine.

Spammers are hard to catch. They morph quickly and don’t leave tracks. They use cut-outs and straw parties to avoid surveillance, and often bounce messages to and from foreign countries and banks. As soon as filters are developed, spammers devise ways to defeat them.

Technology may one day find a way to spam-proof our computers. In the meantime, at least seven anti-spam bills have been introduced in Congress. Several states – including Missouri and Illinois – have passed legislation requiring “adv” (for “advertisement”) to be in the subject line of commercial e-mail originating in their states. That’s not much, but it’s a start.

Spam’s supporters, including those who insist that the Internet be free and unfettered, say free speech is at stake. Commercial messages are protected speech – as long as they’re true. It’s also important to distinguish misleading commercial spam from e-mail expressing an opinion. The California Supreme Court has rightly protected the right of a fired Intel employee to send e-mail to company employees complaining about his firing.

Computer users wind up paying for the dubious honor of being spammed. Internet service providers must employ ever more servers, filters and technical staff to deal with the problem, and those costs are passed on to users. Users should be able to “opt out” of being spammed, through no-spam lists. At the very least, the FTC should aggressively pursue the more fraudulent spammers.

In the meantime, the best advice is to be careful where you send your e-mail address, and be quick on the delete key.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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