Spam landscape bleaker than ever

Columnist Jonathan B. Spira says now that CAN-SPAM has made the problem worse, e-mail is losing its value because legitimate messages are outnumbered sour sales pitches.

It is perhaps no coincidence that, while spam e-mail volume is increasing seemingly without bounds, more and more

of my correspondents have commented that they "missed" an important piece of e-mail.

This led me to study the impact that the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 has had since it was signed into law last December. CAN-SPAM was intended to create a uniform standard for e-mail marketers and provide civil and criminal penalties for a variety of spam-related activities.

It is safe to say, almost six months after it took effect, that CAN-SPAM has not only failed to reduce spam e-mail, but also that it has actually created an environment where the amount of spam e-mail has increased significantly. There have been few arrests under CAN-SPAM; the most prominent spam conviction (the so-called "Buffalo Spammer," Howard Carmack, was convicted in late May under a New York State identity theft statute). The impact of CAN-SPAM has largely been that legitimate e-mail senders have added their postal address to the bottom of their messages, while spammers who were based on U.S. soil have moved their activities offshore, beyond the reach of U.S. law.

About the Author

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and chief analyst at Basex, an analysis firm that specializes in collaborative business knowledge in the enterprise. Click here to contact Basex.

After poring over figures covering the amount of spam vs. ham (i.e. non-spam e-mail, a retronym if I've ever seen one), the impact became clear: since CAN-SPAM, there has been a significant increase in spam e-mail traffic. At the end of 2003, spam e-mail represented a minimum of 50% of the world's e-mail traffic. (I say "minimum" because one man's spam is another man's L.L. Bean special offer.)

Today, Basex estimates that spam represents ca. 70% of all e-mail traffic. This is a 40% increase in spam e-mail volume in a period of 5 months. This increase also means that spam e-mail has eclipsed legitimate e-mail as the dominant type. It is more likely that the next piece of mail you, dear reader, will receive will be one from a sender you do not know, offering you a product or service you most certainly do not want, rather than an e-mail relating to business or a personal note from a friend.

This, in turn, is impacting how some people use e-mail. Certainly, it defeats the purpose of e-mail to have to follow-up by phone to ascertain its receipt. The sheer volume of spam alone means that some legitimate e-mails will simply never see the light of day; what's worse, poorly implemented spam "solutions" (such as using a rule to delete any e-mail with the word "sex" in it), would result in the disappearance of this column, as the last three letters of Basex are "sex".

In recent weeks, there have been several spikes in spam e-mail due to major virus outbreaks. More and more companies are deploying anti-spam solutions, including those from Brightmail, Ironport, and Postini. Of course, this does not come without a cost: IT departments, which are spending more and more on fighting spam, must defer other projects, including Collaborative Business Knowledge-related ones, meaning that the cost of spam e-mail is not limited to the cost of anti-spam technology, nor to the cost of missing an important e-mail that was buried in a pile of spam; rather, CBK projects that could make people more efficient and make an organization more agile are being postponed, as overworked IT departments struggle to combat the next virus outbreak and spike in spam e-mail.

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