Spam, the electronic version of junk mail, stirred enormous controversy and heated opinions as the Internet economy developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Following a visit or a transaction on a given Internet site, a user may find his or her mailbox filled with electronic announcements offering everything from cheap airline tickets to limited-offer retail sales, from faster Internet access to online pornography. While the absence of postage costs creates an almost unbearable temptation for firms to send spam, the amount of bandwidth it consumes on commercial networks and in users' mailboxes raised the ire of many Internet users and providers. According to Forbes, estimates place spam at up to 30 percent of all e-mail traffic.
Spam solicitors employ sophisticated search programs to locate Internet addresses not only from their own e-mail lists and that of aligned companies, but also from standard online directories. Customers routinely wind up on a spammer's list when registering for a software download or entering information at the point of online purchase. Mainstream sites increasingly allow users to opt out of having their e-mail addresses shared with others or used for the site's own promotions, but these options often remain buried in the fine print.
Overwhelmingly the most common response to unsolicited commercial e-mail is to hit the delete button, just as the bulk of unsolicited traditional mail winds up in the wastebasket. Nonetheless, spam still causes some problems for the consumer. Unsolicited commercial e-mail consumes space on computer hard drives, and lengthy download times can be costly for those Internet users who pay for Internet access by the minute. Internet service providers, to attract customers and to keep them happy, increasingly offer spam-filtering services that eliminate the spam on their servers before the customer downloads his or her e-mail. In addition, most of the major e-mail programs, such as Netscape Messenger and Microsoft Outlook, came packaged with options to sort through incoming mail and separate spam into its own folder-or in the trash. But these programs, too, cost money to develop and implement and maintain. Thus, short of eliminating spam altogether, there is little way of preventing spam senders' cost savings from being shifted to someone else—either the recipient or the operator of the recipient's mail server.
Because of all these problems and annoyances, spam has long been a dirty word on the Internet, and many Internet privacy groups, Internet service providers (ISPs), consumer groups, and even legislators, have taken strides to clamp down on spam mail. Privacy groups such as Green Brook, New Jersey-based Junkbusters, and anti-spam groups led by the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) took up the fight against spam in the late 1990s. When the U.S. Congress first began debating in 2000 bills designed to limit the proliferation of spam, 16 states already had some form of anti-spam laws on their books, even as these laws varied greatly and were difficult to coordinate across state lines.
While Internet user groups and legislators increased their pressure on purveyors of spam in the early 2000s, spam supporters protested that the penalization of spam would result in severely hindered marketing opportunities. Since it entails such low costs, even the very few sales generated by spam make the bulk e-mails worthwhile, and thus companies remain attracted to it. In some cases, companies prefer to fight the negative publicity generated from spam by cleaning up their unsolicited e-mail, taking great pains to distinguish their spam as responsible and customer friendly by the measured tone and the ability, within the e-mail, for the recipient to opt out of the spammer's list. Spam activists, however, believe the most responsible measure marketers can take before soliciting via e-mail, however, is to obtain the recipient's permission before sending the e-mail, at which point it would no longer be considered spam.
Armstrong, Larry. "Making Mincemeat Out of Unwanted Email." Business Week, December 18, 2000.
Blakely, Kiri. "Spam Warfare." Forbes, September 18, 2000.
Borrus, Amy, and John Carey. "Angry About Junk e-Mail? Congress Is Listening." Business Week, April 23, 2001.
Goldsborough, Reid. "Be Smart When Sending Email to the Masses." Link-up, November/December 2000.
Johnston, Margret. "Cracking Down on Spam." InfoWorld, July 24, 2000.
Philbrick, Charles L., and Matthew Z. Hammoudeh. "Lawmakers Search for Ingredients to Make Spam Less Appetizing." Intellectual Property & Technology Law Journal, October 2000.
Wildstrom, Stephen H. "It's Time to Can the Spam." Business Week, March 12, 2001, 24.
SEE ALSO: Netiquette; Privacy: Issues, Policies, Statements