Too Much Spam?

Cory Kincaid
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Only ten years ago email was more popular than sliced bread. But today, in the age of mass spam emails for viagra, penile enlargement, and under-the counter prescription drugs, average email users are getting fed up and starting to use their email services less and less, according to think tank Pew Internet and American Life Project.

According to Pew Internet in its study titled "How Spam is Hurting Email and Degrading Life on the Internet," 25 percent of users say they are using their email less because of the glut of junk email.

Pew researchers interviewed 1,380 Internet users and determined that the recent upsurge in the amount of spam and unsolicited email the average person receives is undermining the popularity and functionality of email.

While Internet users generally agree that spam is unsolicited commercial email from a sender that they don't know, many users respond differently to spam in their email box.

"While many people agree on what spam is, how they deal with it depends on the content," Deborah Fallows, the study's author, told XBiz. "Some people don't seem to mind the softer forms of spam coming from religious, political, or fund-raising groups, but there is a strong consensus that anything to do with financial institutions or pornography is spam. There is a definite fuzziness in how people perceive unsolicited email."

Fallows points to Congress' ongoing difficulty in defining what spam actually is. For nearly a year now, politicians have been arguing over the definition of spam in order to properly implement laws that will effectively diminish, if not eliminate, unwanted email.

But between pressure from email marketers, who stand to lose huge amounts of money if strong anti-spam laws are passed, and the more underground, anonymous spammer community, it has been an uphill battle with little relief in sight.

Message Labs, a spam filter company, estimates that 70 percent of spam is sent via hijacked computers.

According to Fallows, many of the survey's respondents said they were cutting down on their use of email and had felt their trust of the Internet in general had been compromised.

Two thirds of people surveyed said that being online had become an "unpleasant" experience for them because of spam. While a majority of respondents were distressed by pornographic emails.

A whopping 75 percent felt frustrated they could do nothing to stop the inflow of spam, and 80 percent said they were bothered by deceptive or obscene spam content.

Ironically, the survey also indicates that spam emails have been effective in reaching consumers, like it or not, and that enough Americans are taking up offers received via unsolicited emails to justify the continuation of those messages.

In Pew Internet's survey, 7 percent of those surveyed said they have ordered a product or service through spam email and 33 percent have clicked through to a link provided by a spam email.

In the meantime, many email users have resorted to tactics that might make it more difficult for spammers to find their email addresses. Many of the respondents said they avoided giving out their email addresses or posting their addresses on the web.

Thirty-seven percent said they use spam filter programs, and 86 percent said they immediately click the delete button when spam appears in their in-box.

The U.S Senate passed the first national anti-spam bill this week that is considered the stiffest of a handful of bills that have been circulating through Congress over recent months. But the chance that it will be passed in the House and signed by President Bush this year is unlikely.

The bill would direct the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create a "do-not-spam" registry similar to the nationwide do-not-call list for telemarketers. It would enable consumers to opt-out of receiving future spam, and it would allow the FTC, state attorney generals, and Internet service providers to seek civil damages against spammers of $25 to $300 per e-mail and jail terms up to five years.

And it would require labels for adult-content messages.

"Pretty much everyone is in consensus that the solution won't just come from legislation," Fallows told XBiz. "The teeth of it will come from the law and will help prosecute spammers, but part of the solution will also come from technology. All of these factors combined will make it more costly and less lucrative to make a living as a spammer."