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Spam - A Brief Q&A Session

Q: Why don't you just mind your own business and let people do what they want?

A: There is an old saying that "your right to swing your fist stops at my nose" and consequently we refuse to passively sit back and grumble about spam without making any constructive effort to improve the situation.

Q: So you don't believe in free commerce then?

A: On the contrary, and in fact we believe strongly in the potential of the Internet as a medium. The primary problem with commercial spam is that traditional economic controls do not work effectively.

Q: And you are incapable of simply deleting the spam you receive, like you would any other undesired communication?

A: The amount of spam we receive is growing at an exponential rate. If it continues to increase at this pace, it will soon pass the amount of regular communication we receive.

Q: So what? Everyone gets more junk mail than regular mail.

A: There are two reciprocal economic issues here: the fees we all pay to distribute the spam over the entire Internet, and the fees the spammers do not pay to send it. Ordinary junk mail costs money both to produce and distribute, whereas for spam these costs are trivial.

Q: You are merely arguing that the Internet is a more efficient distribution medium!?

A: Hardly. While it is true that the reduced distribution costs could potentially benefit everyone, the fact that it costs the spammer nothing to send off a million extra copies of his literature produces incorrect economic incentives. It becomes profitable for the spammer to contact a million people in the hope of making one transaction, and consequently there is no economic limit to the volume of spam.

Q: If there is "no limit" to spam, why isn't there more of it?

A: As it happens, long-time Internet citizens have some cursory mechanisms in place to discourage spam. What you see now is the result of that. However, the spammers are challenging these mechanisms in court, and this is partly the motivation for the current escalation in effort. More basically, the number of people who want to spam increases every day.

Q: This is cutting edge technology, so why expect old-fashioned measures to remain useful?

A: First of all, hopefully common courtesy is still in fashion, and refusing to desist from sending people material they do not want is most certainly discourteous, at the very least. Perhaps more significantly, if we allow the volume of spam to continue rising, it will saturate the networks.

Q: I thought you were supposed to be in favor of technology? That talk is just anti-technological nonsense.

A: We know the capacity of the networks will continue to expand. It has to expand, and it will. However, why should we all pay for even faster development, just so some people can try to strike it rich with saturation advertising? Given the economic incentives, we will each be sorting through hundreds of junk messages to find a single piece of genuine communication.

Q: What makes spam any harder to "sort" than regular junk mail?

A: Regular junk mail just doesn't look much like your "real" mail. I can sort it by eye in seconds. Sure, some companies try to make their junk mail look more personal or conversational, but it's still rather easy to spot. The reason is that they need to produce it by machine in order to send out so many copies. They also need to pay for the copies, and so use cheaper material. In the case of Internet communication, all the content remains in the machine domain, and is hence superficially identical.

Q: If this is a machine problem, why not sort it by machine?

A: Like some postal junk mailers, spammers often try to make their material look like it is directed at you personally. While there might be some machine-readable indications, the signs are quickly disappearing as spammers learn their craft. The only feasible possibility is refusing to exchange communication with known spammers. This is one of the thrusts of the initiative, but note that spammers are trying legal recourses to disallow this refusal, and the entire method rests on a scarcity of spam such that one can readily identify spamming sites for exclusion.

Q: Why can't you just refuse to accept mail from anyone but your friends?

A: This "solution" makes it impossible to receive random inquiries or hear from long lost friends. It effectively diminishes the usefulness of the medium, and provides the spammers with validation of their efforts. It is defeatist, whereas we are striving for constructive solutions. Also, as long as the Internet mail system functions as it does, even if spam is discarded by some kind of filtering system, it would continue to put a load on the network capacity and pass that cost along to everyone.

Q: If I want to hear about commercial offers over the Internet, why shouldn't I?

A: We do not want to stop anyone from receiving any communication they want to receive. We would be happy if you could simply subscribe to mailing lists for advertising. Legitimate advertising groups should have no problem establishing such a mechanism.

Q: Why not just keep a list of people who do not want unsolicited advertising?

A: At this point, spammers have not demonstrated any willingness to respect such lists. Perhaps at some point they will. However, one of the reasons lists work for mail and telephone solicitation is that entering the business requires a fairly substantial investment, and so the industry is more easily self-regulated. In the case of email spam, as discussed, the costs involved are negligible and anyone can do it. Of course, part of the enforcement mechanism for postal and telemarketing involves legal recourse.

Q: If anyone can do it, it is impossible to stop, isn't it?

A: To be sure, there are no easy answers when it comes to stopping spam. However, we would like to encourage those companies who provide access to the Internet to let their customers know what constitutes acceptable use of resources and to take appropriate measures against a breach of that acceptability. This might also include more proactive measures against known repeat offenders.

Q: Isn't that the government's job?

A: Simply put, we believe that if the Internet community makes more effort to be self-policing, it will decrease the likelihood that legislation which damages the value we each extract from this medium will be passed. Ultimately, we want to encourage any governments who might involve themselves with spam to make intelligent choices. In closing, it must be reiterated that the actual content of the message is not at issue with us, but rather the size and constitution of the audience upon which it is thrust.

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Todd Michel McComb