Instant Messaging: A New Source of Spam?

Advertising via the new instant messaging applications now flooding the Internet may be the next tactic of dedicated spammers.

The thought may give spam-meisters shivers of delight, but recipients undoubtedly will have a different opinion.

“It’s one thing to fend off, delete, or ignore spam in an email in box. Imagine if the unwanted advertisements, pornography promotions and pyramid schemes simply popped up on your computer screen–without any warning or invitation,” said a recent article in The New York Times.

More immediate than email, instant messaging technology allows users to send messages to someone else online that can pop up immediately on the recipient’s screen.

The instant messaging concept got an endorsement last week when America Online Inc. said it will pay $287 million for Mirabilis Ltd, an Israeli company that owns ICQ, an instant messaging and chat service with about 12 million registered users.

The Mirabilis acquisition adds to AOL’s dominance of the industry: the company claims 30 million users of its Instant Messenger software, the Times said. That includes members of AOL’s proprietary online service as well as Internet users who have downloaded AOL’s instant messaging technology. Competing services include iChat, with half a million users, Ding, with 100,000, and PeopleLink, with 310,000.

As instant messaging increases in popularity–it is now used by more than 40 million people–it is bound to confront some of the irritations that have plagued other forms of Internet communications, such as email, newsgroups and chat rooms, the Times said. And one issue raised by instant messaging subscribers is an increase in the amount of unsolicited messages they receive.

“One time, I received an email from ‘a friend’ that contained nothing but a URL. When I clicked on it, it took me directly to a smut site,” Che Nera, a business student in the Philippines who uses ICQ, was quoted as saying. “It’s a waste of Internet time, which here in the Philippines is very precious since the Internet is quite pricey.”

Ray Everett-Church, the co-founder of the anti-spam group Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E- mail, said the problem is most severe for people who participate in America Online’s chat rooms. He said spammers can check the chat rooms to see which AOL members are signed on, then fire off advertisements. “If you spend an hour online, it’s not at all uncommon to get three or four instant message solicitations,” Everett-Church said.

However, even the critics admit that the problem is not nearly as widespread as unsolicited email sent to traditional mailboxes. For one thing, bulk e- mailers haven’t figured out how to take full advantage of instant messaging technology.

For its part, AOL says it gets relatively few complaints about the issue. “This is not a problem,” Barry Schuler, the president of interactive services for America Online, was quoted as saying. “That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s very localized.”

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