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CNET ran a story this past May by Barry Dennis called “Why I love spam” Barry first relates his experience of some years ago when he would get a lot of postal “junk mail” that was unsolicited and he says that he loved it. He says he really appreciated the offers because he learned things and bought things as a result. He further says that the junk mailers “were (and still are) reaching out to satisfy my needs as their research indicated”. There was a time when I would have agreed with Barry with regard to “junk mail”, but then he goes off the deep end to say that he loves spam email! He says that the spam he receives tells him about things he is interested in, gives him referrals, and provides ideas and food for thought. His bottom line is that spam is simply the “junk mail” of a few years ago. I completely disagree.

A few years ago I counted junk mail in my postal service mail box and proclaimed that the amount of spam email I got was about the same as a percentage of my inbox as junk mail was of my postal box. That was a few years ago. For the past six weeks, my spam has averaged 92 per day. I don’t know the percentage but spam is by far and away the majority. Fortunately, there are some great tools out there like Cloudmark that can catch most of it and dump it in the spam folder or delete it. Barry says, “just hit the delete key”. Just looking at spam and deleting it is a huge infringement on our privacy and our productivity. Worse yet is that with the advent of colorful and graphical html mail, we (and our children) receive pornographic displays in our faces.

Spam is today’s junk mail? I don’t think so. The reason is simple — economics. To send junk mail and telephone solicitation takes people, physical assets, and non-trivial capital investment. To send millions of spam emails can be done by one person and at a very low cost. In fact, the incremental cost to send one more spam emails is effectively zero.

We don’t need unsolicited email to be informed or to enable us to get things we may need “based on research”. We all know how to use Google and find what we need. If we want someone to give us suggestions, there are plenty of reputable companies that will be happy to do so — if we chose to sign up for it. Unsolicited spam is a big problem. What do we do about it?

The Global Internet Project held a workshop entitled, “Spam: Can It Be Stopped?”, on June 18 in Washington. You can read about it in this weblog in the Public Policy category archive. In attendance were more than 100 participants representing some of the leading experts from government, academia, law, business, and the press. There was strong consensus that spam is a broad and deep problem and it is having significant negative economic and personal productivity impact. While there was strong consensus that spam will likely never be eliminated entirely, workshop participants made a strong statement that a multi-faceted approach was crucial to address the burgeoning problem of spam. By leveraging the capabilities of Internet service providers (ISP’s), software companies, employers, consumers, and government, spam can be effectively addressed.

The GIP will hold a follow-on “Spam Roundtable” on January 14 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The meeting will include representatives of government, academia, law, business, and the press and the objective is to assess progress on all fronts. A press release will be issued summarizing the GIP conclusions from the roundtable of experts. Stay tuned.