Latte Nation

Green Eggs and Spam

There's nothing to like about the rise in unsolicited e-mail.

By 5.14.03

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Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Lott's corollary: The magic eventually fades.

Remember the Information Superhighway? It's such a '90s word but it offers a pretty good metaphor to explain the recent torrent of articles on unsolicited commercial e-mail -- spam. But we'll get to that.

Journalists are sick to death of the Viagra ads, porn ads, offers of restored credit, miracle anti-aging drugs, and Nigerian immigrants looking for small loans to retrieve large fortunes (which they will split with their "most generous" sponsors) in their morning e-mailboxes, and they've decided to give readers an earful in the slim hope that someone will do something about it. USA Today tech columnist Kevin Maney, for instance, argues that spam is "becoming the kind of biblical scourge Charlton Heston would've directed at Yul Brynner, if e-mail had been around when God sent down the Ten Commandments to the Paramount studios."

Overwrought? Yes. But he's not wrong. This year has seen a major increase in spam and journalists are more likely to be on the receiving end of it than most. Our e-mail addresses are often publicly displayed: bait for web crawlers to grab and add to the tally of victims. Worse, unlike casual computer users, it isn't the easiest thing for journalists to switch e-mail accounts. Change addresses and, odds are, you will miss important messages.

There are methods of filtering out the spam, but they create problems of their own. If the filters are too severe, they're likely to weed out e-mail that, trust me, you wanted to receive. (Imagine a budding Woodward or Bernstein who installs a filter to weed out porn spam and then gets a letter from "Deepthroat.") A more liberal filter will leave too much spam in the in box. (In which case, why bother?) Some people compromise by setting the filter to stun and frequently checking the trash bin before the computer empties it out. (In which case...)

With old-fashioned direct mail, a per-unit cost was incurred with every letter sent, which functioned as an effective restraint. Solicitation number 10,001 cost, let us say, 30 cents more than the first 10,000. Mailings are costly affairs and are often highly targeted and infrequent. I must be on every mailing list under the sun (e.g. magazines, lefty activists, Catholic charities, the NRA, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, book orders, you name it) and yet the flow is manageable.

Conversely, the problem with spam is a Greek tragedy of the commons, complete with chorus and distraught oracle. E-mail lists are cheap and mass mailings are inexpensive, so the difference in cost between the 10,000th and 10,001st recipients -- or the 1,000,000th and 1,000,001st for that matter -- is effectively nil. That is, we get so much spam because it costs spammers so little.

In fact, efforts to filter out or ignore spammers are likely to spur them on to cast their nets wider. Worse, there's no natural brake built into this system. As long as some people are willing to buy items advertised in spam -- and, let's face it, there always will be -- spammers will have an incentive to inundate us with ever more annoying e-mails. And the Information Superhighway will jam up and slow to a crawl.

A few serious attempts have been made to combat spam. The U.S. Treasury Department will investigate those Nigerian fortune-type letters trying to shake people down for money, and service providers will often drop them like hot potatoes (my friend Kevin Steel has an easy breakdown of how to report these; please give it a look and help save gullible but decent people -- usually retirees -- from being swindled out of house and home). Likewise several states have passed anti-spam laws, though the enforcement of said laws is not likely to be easy, even in a few cases. With government actions, free speech becomes a prickly issue. What I see as nuisance e-mail, the sender will argue is protected speech.

More likely to enjoy some success will be a series of ever more complicated and refined filters (and other methods) to manage the spam problem. Manage but not remove: Spam as a social problem has now arrived, and it's up to us to make the best of it.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.