Mass Mailing Madness

By Ian Morrison, 10 March 2002
Image: Illustration {]

Everybody hates spam – well everybody but the suppliers, who think it’s lovely and wonderful. Ian Morrison asks where it came from and where it might be going

Spam is, officially at least, a registered trademark of Hormel Foods Corporation. It was in 1997 that representatives wrote to a notorious spammer, objecting to his use of the word ‘spam’ and his website. In response, he spammed the contents of their letter. Hormel was portrayed as trying to interfere with the internet, and accused of making issues with netizens that should have been discussed with Monty Python thirty years earlier. Millions of innocent victims were spammed senseless.

Nowadays, the Corporation is much calmer with its brand, asking only that people writing about their pink processed meat put the trademark (SPAM) in capital letters and follow it with ‘Luncheon Meat’. It also helpfully reminds us that ‘a trademark is a formal adjective and as such, should always be followed by a noun.’

The aformentioned notorious spammer was Sanford Wallace, the self proclaimed ‘King of Spam’. One of the original fax abusers, he moved into the junk email business after unsolicited junk fax submissions were outlawed by the US congress. By 1997 Wallace’s junk email business, through his companies Promo Enterprises and Cyber Promotions, had made him one of the most hated people on the internet. Wallace, who has compared himself to other media ‘rebels’ like Madonna and Howard Stern, managed to evade the various email filtering mechanisms designed to block his mailings. AOL said it was receiving 1.8 million spams per day from Cyber Promotions until a court injunction made him stop.

Artists and poets parody bulk email with online comics and poetry contests. The artists behind – the world’s first 24-hour spam-streaming radio station – said ‘we dislike spam, but it is sometimes funny.’ It’s the content rather than the volume that tickles their rather black sense of humour. Spam is treated as a kind of unwelcome guest, interrogated at the door and asked to leave. For many there are few other options.

For all its celebrities and slapstick sensibility, however, spam is a serious cause for concern. It’s what consumer analysts call ‘Postage-Due Marketing’ – the consumer pays for transit of the message in costs to their ISP. A European Commission study published in February 2001 calculates the cost of spam as 10,000,000 euros a year. Legal protection against spamming in the EU is afforded by either opt-outs (a box to tick if you do not wish to receive unsolicited information) or opt-ins (a formal request to receive such information). Opt-ins are required in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy and Germany. The commission favours the opt-in approach: its study found that, from the point of view of industry, ‘permission-based marketing’ is proving a more effective and viable method of data collection. The Commission believes that the opt-in approach would serve to bolster consumer confidence in the EU, and is now waiting for the European Parliament’s approval.

In January 2000 the US-based Direct Marketing Association (DMA) launched its Electronic Mail Preference Service (e-MPS). Anti-spam groups called on internet users and companies to reject this attempt to change email marketing from an opt-in to an opt-out system. Junkbusters President Jason Catlett commented: ‘Most businesses and industry groups have long understood that spamming is bad for consumers, bad for the internet, and bad for business. The e-MPS from the DMA is a really rotten idea, as awful as a trade association of oil companies maintaining a list of people who don’t want petroleum waste dumped near their property. It just shouldn’t happen. People shouldn’t register, and companies shouldn’t use it.’

The overwhelming public opinion is one of resentment. Spending time and money on receiving and dealing with unsolicited bulk email is, in their opinion, unreasonable. The Federal Trade Commission gets 4,500 spam complaints per day. Without resolution, the spam problem will only grow; bad news for privacy, anonymity, commercial communications, and consumers.

Ian Morrison <ian AT> is a security analyst and founder of Darq Ltd, a network consultancy in London