Still Waiting for That E-mail Avalanche

Dec 07, 2005 6:47 PM  By

By now it’s clear that those who two years ago predicted an onslaught of legalized unsolicited commercial e-mail resulting from the federal Can-Spam Act of 2003 were spectacularly wrong.

Remember antispammers’ dire warnings in 2002 and ’03? Since Can-Spam didn’t outlaw all unsolicited e-mail, companies that previously had refrained from spamming would begin carpet-bombing consumers’ inboxes with spam as soon as it was legal to do so.

For some terrifying perspective, anti-spammers offered the following little formula: If someone got one message a month from just 1% of the 22.4 million businesses in America, the average inbox would get 7,359 commercial e-mails per day. Pretty scary…and a bunch of alarmist nonsense that never materialized.

This is not to say that spam doesn’t remain a problem. This is just a reminder of where the problem was not and is still not originating.

The rhetoric claiming that opt-out legislation would create a spam avalanche went hyper-shrill right before Can-Spam went into effect on Jan. 1, 2004.

“[B]y signaling to the world that spamming is now legal in the USA, we believe that the United States is inviting a tsunami of spam from Asia,” says a letter that’s been posted on antispam site Spamhaus.org since Dec. 20, 2003. “By requiring that American citizens read through and respond to every spam to ‘opt-out’ of ever-more mailings they did not opt-in to [sic], we also believe that millions will find their addresses sold on as ‘people who read spams’[sic] and will find themselves endlessly on yet more lists.”

Yep, imagine the profit in a list-industry selling addresses of “people who read spams.” When list fatigue begins to set in, the industry could sell addresses of “people who read subject lines.”

Meanwhile, Spamhaus’s Chicken Little copy continues: “Can Spam will invite thousands of new spammers to swell the ranks of existing spammers all ‘spamming legally’ utilizing the obvious loopholes. Can Spam will substantially increase spam volumes in 2004 and will ultimately unquestionably have to be countered by a new U.S. federal law to finally and properly ban spam.”

Makes for very compelling reading. Trouble is, it hasn’t happened. That Asian tsunami? Technology vendor Symantec published a study saying that as of July, 52% of spam originated in the United States, compared with 28% from Asia and 15% from Europe.

Just an idea, but maybe the reason we don’t get more Asian spam is because most of us can’t read it and therefore don’t respond to it. Moreover, Asian attempts at English sales copy are generally, shall we say, lacking. Just check out Engrish.com.

“Legitimate businesses value long-term value-driven relationships, and in order to create those, they need to engender trust,” says Trevor Hughes, executive director of the E-mail Sender and Provider Coalition (formerly the E-mail Service Provider Coalition). “Businesses are finding that e-mail is incredibly powerful for that purpose, but only when done in a smart way. I don’t find it surprising at all that the avalanche of spam that was predicted by the anti-spam community never occurred.”

Whether or not Can-Spam has helped stem the flow of unwanted commercial e-mail is up for debate. “I wouldn’t say it’s been an unqualified success. I wouldn’t say it has been an unqualified failure either,” says Hughes.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission recently published a report concluding that Internet service providers block the vast majority of spammers’ attempts to flood consumers’ inboxes. In a study using 150 undercover e-mail accounts–50 each at one ISP that uses no antispam filters and two that use spam filters–the FTC posted the addresses on 50 Internet sites, including message boards, chat rooms, blogs and Usenet groups, the FTC said.

After five weeks, e-mail addresses at the unfiltered ISP received 8,885 spam e-mails, while the 50 addresses at one of the filtered ISPs received 1,208 and the 50 addresses at the other filtered ISP received 422.

The first ISP that used filters blocked 86.4% of the spam and the second blocked 95.2%, according to the FTC.

“Notably, the fact that the vast majority of spam sent to the harvested addresses in this study was never delivered to consumers’ inboxes demonstrates the relative effectiveness of the two ISP’s spam filters,” the FTC study concluded. “This encouraging result suggests that antispam technologies may be dramatically reducing the burden of spam on consumers.”

And there is every reason to believe that technology will soon become even more effective at blocking spam. As e-mail senders increasingly authenticate their messages, it theoretically will become easier for e-mailbox providers to identify senders that tend to be “spammy” and treat mail from their servers accordingly.

Imagine that: The private sector, driven by profits, developing more-effective antispam solutions than legislators ever could without killing the medium’s commercial viability. Makes one want to cock one’s head like a confused dog, doesn’t it?