Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition

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Spam

Every day when people access email, cascades of unwanted messages greet them. Since the development of advertising, marketers have sought new ways to make contact with potential customers. Who hasn’t come home to find the mailbox stuffed with circulars, catalogs, and “special offers”? Now that so many people use the Internet and email, marketers are using the technology to reach more customers than ever, more cheaply than ever.

For a time, spam- the nickname for unwanted email- was merely an annoyance. But as its use has increased, the consequences have, too. Unlike a home mailbox, spam has a cost attached to it, both for the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that handles the traffic, and for the end user who pays for having an account with the ISP. Add in the time people have to spend dealing with spam, and the costs skyrocket. The most recent estimates say spam costsU.S. businesses nearly $22 billion per year. Broken down by employee, costs average nearly $2000 per year. Already, spam accounts for 83% of emails, and according to experts, these numbers will only go up. With its costs already so high, this can only increase the burden on many businesses’ bottom line.

Although the problem of spam email is the worst in the United States, many other countries are combating the same problem. In Canada, over 60% of all email is spam, while in the United Kingdom, approximately 52% is spam, and in Germany, the estimaes are around 41%.

Marketers say that any attempt to regulate spam is a restriction of free speech. They also say that spam is just another manifestation of the principles of capitalism, and that no good purpose is served by restricting businesses from using whatever means they have to let customers know about products and services. The claim of the customer’s right to know underpins many of the arguments advertisers use to support their position. Without unsolicited bulk mailings, many businesses would have no good alternative for finding customers.

For several years, legislators were reluctant to join the fray. They tended to agree with the marketers’ position that spam, while unwanted by most people, is a protected activity, and a reasonable business strategy. Because of the enormous costs to citizens and businesses, that view has begun to change. In January of 2004, the CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) was enacted. This law aims to protect the consumer by imposing regulations on commercial email. By law, all email must now have accurate routing information, a subject line that accurately reflects the content of the message, and an opt-out option that the receiver can use to cancel future mailings. In addition, the message must be identified as an advertisement and include the sender's valid postal address. The sender of the spam must also respond to any request to opt-out within 10 business days. Failure to obey any of these laws can result in fines of up to $11,000. Under the new law, individual states are also given the right to enforce much of their own spam legislation. Although the CAN-SPAM Act is not completely effective in halting the transmission of spam email, legislators hope that it will aid in reducing the costs to the consumer.

 
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