Spam: We're Losing
First, the bad news. Despite all efforts, spam is growing faster than ever. Yet, there may be an unexpected silver lining.
The bad news for those of us combating spam is... we're losing. Despite an ever-escalating hue and cry from consumers, legislators, businesses, marketers, ISPs, and a burgeoning number of anti-spam coalitions, organizations, and task forces, the problem has grown worse -- much, much worse.
Mutterings that spam could kill e-mail as we know it (certainly marketing as we know it) are escalating into a new fear voiced in ISP and other tech quarters. There are mutterings spam could put an end to the Internet as we know it.
The numbers are as sobering as they are stunning. Spam accounted for 8 percent of the world's e-mail in late 2001. Now, 40 percent of e-mail is spam, says Brightmail. Junk e-mail doubled in the last six months. It metastasized nearly 3 percent between last December and January of this year alone.
Incredulous? Ask any ISP. AOL says spam doubled in the last six months. Calling the situation a "crisis," the company blocks close to 1 billion junk messages daily. Yet 4 million spam reports pour in every day from AOL's 26 million subscribers.
Much of what they report, of course, is legitimate, opt-in e-mail.
EarthLink recently reported its spam traffic shot up 500 percent over the last 18 months. Microsoft just slapped a daily limit on the number of messages users of its free service can send, in an attempt to manage the outbound problem. Yahoo!'s launched an aggressive anti-spam campaign, complete with a sweepstakes to encourage users to report unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE).
Rest assured, plenty of trigger-happy consumers use the "This Is Spam" button in lieu of "unsubscribe," making a bad thing for marketers even worse.
ISPs have little choice but to appear proactive, even to the point of blocking solicited commercial e-mail from inboxes. That their servers are pounded by spam is bad enough. Worse, subscribers blame ISPs for befouled mail accounts. Spam is ISP customer service complaint number one and the reason behind most subscriber churn. In 1999, 7 percent of people who changed e-mail addresses cited spam as the reason. Nearly half of Americans (49 percent) change an e-mail address annually. Recently, NFO WorldGroup found 64 percent of personal e-mail address changes are due to spam and/or an ISP switch.
The opt-in e-mail these people requested... bounces.
Sure, there's a huge contingent out there (including many ClickZ readers) whose stance is more or less summed up as: Spam? Deal with it.
We do. Spam cost U.S. businesses $9 billion last year in additional equipment, software, and employees needed to combat the problem, plus lost productivity, according to Ferris Research. Cost this year? Over $10 billion.
On the consumer level, quantities of scams, porn, and malicious viruses pour into the e-mail accounts of those too young, IT-challenged, or momentarily off-guard to rise to a considerable, multifaceted challenge.
Five or six months ago, I obtained a list of about 120 anti-spam products currently on the market. I estimate the panoply of solutions, from the consumer to enterprise level, has doubled since then. Some are nearly useless. Some are pretty darned good. But this is an arms race, and the bad guys are winning.
Bottom line: If there were a product out there that worked, new product announcements wouldn't cross my desk on a daily basis. Often, the "solutions" come with their own problems. Improperly or inexpertly configured filters have zapped plenty of e-mail traffic (all e-mail traffic) into never-never land. It's happened to AT&T, foreign ISPs, and many end users.
Legislation that reaches all the way to the state line (even to a national border) is more official position than deterrent. Twenty-six states have anti-spam laws, and more are pending. Only one, Delaware, bans bulk UCE outright. States do little enforcement. Laws are used primarily by companies to sue the most egregious (and trackable) spammers.
Twenty spam bills, spanning everything from opt-in to wireless messaging, have been introduced in Congress. So far, nothing's happened. On the federal level, only the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a track record of prosecuting spammers on consumer fraud charges.
At the end of this month, the FTC will hold a three-day Spam Forum in Washington to explore the problem from every conceivable angle. Technologists, ISPs, marketers, list brokers, attorneys, government officials, legislators, and foreign representatives will convene to examine the problem.
ISPCON, the annual gathering for the ISP industry, has all but dedicated this year's conference to looking at spam, again, from a myriad of angles and perspectives.
Neither event can be expected to provide an instant solution. But both are doing something that's been lacking so far in the spam wars: ending the Balkanization between special interest groups. I'll attend both and will let you know what transpires.
Spam affects everyone who's online and has an e-mail account. As illustrated above, what different constituencies do to combat spam can adversely affect interested parties. An ISP protecting its relationship with subscribers by combating spam can, at the same time, damage of legitimate marketers' interests.
Maybe if there's any good news on the spam front, it's that no single party fighting the good fight has yet managed to make significant progress against spam and badly damage another combatant in the process (not that anyone is emerging unscathed).
If we're taking this from the top, as it appears we must, it's in everyone's interest to present a united front.
Meet Rebecca at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.