New Horizons in Spam Appreciation

Whenever my friend John Audette sees things getting slow at his I-Sales Discussion List, he has a simple solution. He asks his readers about spam.

Spam is one of those perennial issues that can always get a reaction. No one is neutral on the subject. Even those email marketers who try to work out a “centrist” position are passionate about their choices, despite the fact that there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos.

Last year we were close to a solution. An anti-spam bill, H.R. 3113, passed the House but died in the Senate. Right now the law will look the other way on all spam unless it’s clearly fraudulent, in which case the crime is fraud, not junk.

Still, email marketing is growing like gangbusters, despite the spammers. A new eMarketer report predicts email marketing will be a $3.6 billion market in 2003, four times bigger than it is now, with the average user getting 31 notes per week.

Jupiter Media Metrix is even suggesting that email will become a cash cow for Internet service providers (ISPs) and portals — they’ll charge sites to deliver it.

Analyst Christopher Todd writes that ISPs will “monetize the delivery of promotional email,” forcing advertisers to pay a premium for guaranteed delivery. This is an early candidate for the most controversial market research conclusion of 2001 since it begs the question “Who owns the inbox?” Imagine — you don’t ask for an advertising email and the ISP gets a bribe for delivery, like a corrupt Third World cop.

How long are you going to stay with that ISP? How long have you had your AOL account?

Tonny Yu is president of Mailshell, an email-filtering service. He should be as staunch an opponent of spam as founder Rodney Joffe, but in a recent column his PR folks sent on the subject under his byline, he gets squishy.

“We don’t need an entirely new series of laws to govern Internet privacy in general or commercial email in particular,” he writes, suggesting that existing laws simply be modified to apply to the Internet. “Aggressive and consistent enforcement of existing privacy laws, along with consumers’ embrace of anti-spam junk-blocking technologies, will stem the tide.”

There you have the real reason there will never be strong legislative action to protect your inbox. As with campaign finance, there is too much money in the present system for reform to succeed. There are software companies that profit from the status quo and ISPs that figure they should, too. There’s a $3.6 billion tsunami coming, some of which depends on legal ambiguity. (I bought a salt shaker from Williams-Sonoma last month and was opted in to its advertising list without my explicit permission — ambiguity is a big trend.)

I’ve said before that spam is the cholesterol of the Internet. Here’s a prediction based on that understanding: Nothing will be done about it until the patient has a heart attack.

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