Spam Wars Get Meaner

Tina Reilly
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The saying that spammers will stop at nothing has recently begun to take on new meaning as commercial spam fests are becoming increasingly commonplace on alternate forms of online communications.

What is widely considered the scourge of email has officially branched out into many other forms of technology, including web blogs, online chat rooms, instant messaging services, cell phones, and text messaging.

Blog sites are more and more frequently the target of spam attacks that advertise all of the typical products and services that email recipients complain about: penile enlargement, Viagra, hot teen sex sites, online gambling, insurance scams, and the list goes on.

Many cell phone carriers and IM providers have launched their own defenses against this new phenomena, but the reality remains that spam has the power to clog systems and make new forms of technology less desirable for new adopters.

"It forces you to either turn off the comments and lose some of the value of the medium, or spend your time deleting spam," Howard Rheingold told the Associated Press.

Rheingold runs his own blog forum and believes that always-on communication will "revolutionize public discourse," but as spammers gain an industry edge on next-generation technology, technological advancement could get stymied.

"There will be no great social transformation if cell phones are turned off, instant messenger programs shut down or blog comments disabled to halt the flow of offers for online porn or cheap drugs," said the AP's Mathew Fordahl.

As it is, studies have clearly indicated that average email users are getting fed up with spam and starting to use email services less and less, according to Washington-based think tank Pew Internet.

According to Pew Internet, out of 1,380 Internet users surveyed for a recent study, 25 percent said they are using their email less because of the glut of junk email. The Pew study also revealed that users felt their trust in the Internet had been compromised.

Two thirds of people surveyed said that being online had become an "unpleasant" experience for them because of spam, and 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 indicated that spam emails have been effective in reaching consumers, like it or not, and that enough Americans are taking up offers received via spam to justify the continuation of those messages.

Pew stated that 7 percent of those surveyed have ordered a product or service through spam solicitations and 33 percent have clicked through to a link provided by a spam email.

Research firm IDC estimates that spam represented 32 percent of all external and internal email sent on an average day in 2003, up from 24 percent just last year.

If Pew Internet thinks that spam and unsolicited email is undermining the popularity and functionality of email, what about its proliferation into other forms of next-generation communication?

As spammers continue to hone their skills as masters of illicit marketing campaigns, Congress argues over anti-spam legislation with no end in sight. But the issue of protecting other forms of online communication technology remains largely ignored.

"We ought to be legislating general concepts, things like you can't market to somebody who's asked you not to," David Sorkin, a professor at John Marshall Law School, told the AP. "But in the case of spam in particular, that hasn't really worked."