Everyone and their lawyer are ready to file papers about spam. And that's a good thing. The technical solutions are failing. Spam won't subside until more spam perps receive unsolicited offers from a district attorney.
Bill Gates was right earlier this week when he called spam "a pollution of the email ecosystem." But unsolicited email is not the only form of pollution plaguing the ecommerce landscape.
Stubborn spyware and adware programs are polluting the Web with renewed vigor. Last year, most reputable online publishers recognized the pop-up problem and either banned them completely or severely limited them to just once per visit. Now that established publishers won't serve them, pop-ups are being streamed by less diligent operators who look for any opening to push them. Worse, they try to slip Trojan horse programs onto computers to deliver pop-ups using seemingly harmless utilities like weather forecasts as the attraction.
Unfortunately, the economics of the pop-up business are similar to the spammer's equation. Many pop-ups are deployed by pay-for-performance marketing programs. Companies pay for the marketing only when a sale is made or when someone clicks on a URL.
The financial structure of the schemes encourages fly-by-night operators who will do anything to push the ads. They care little if 99.999 percent of the people who see it are annoyed. A success rate of 0.001 percent is all they expect.
The motives of spyware operators are less predictable. Some are fishing for insider information in corporations. Others are just amusing themselves by seeing what they can learn.
When I heard about the RIAA's new campaign to sue music-file swappers, I have to admit, I was thrilled. Not because I care that much about the politics of music sharing. I'm just pleased to see some heat applied to the P2P networks since they're responsible for spreading adware, spyware and the worms that deliver them to millions of unsuspecting desktops.
The concept behind P2P networks is noble, but the pollution they're spreading is not. If the RIAA cleans them up, I'm all for it.
A more insidious class of polluter is the home page hijacker. The basic scam is to own URLs that suggest something useful or are based on a common mis-spelling (an example you don't want to try: "traval.com").You are presented with only links that produce a penny's worth of income to the scammer. If you try to navigate away without clicking on a link a pop-up that looks like a system message will try to re-set your home page to this garbage dump. Of course, as you escape, you're harassed by a stream of pop-afters.
These parasites are quick to register the rights to expiring URLs since they know there is a traffic history that will enrich them far beyond the cost of the domain registration. It's a common problem for us at the download and resource sites we maintain. Almost daily, readers report links that once sent people to a free download or a useful informational page have been turned into one of these rat traps.
When marketers who support these annoying schemes are asked for a rationale, they say they receive few complaints. Of course, no one would want to contact them since they're afraid they'd end up getting spam in return.
The end result is that the Web is less welcoming. Web surfing, once pleasant, has become fraught with risk. Over the long run, that will make it even harder for those who have valuable contributions to make as people will shy away from sites they don't know. And that's not a good thing.
For more on spyware, see this this Datamation report.
Gus Venditto is the editor-in-chief of the internet.com and EarthWeb.com networks.