Spam: The Never-Ending Challenge

I thought of Sisyphus last week and his futile attempt to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down…

What brought it to mind? A few items in the news last week:

  • The legislative fight against spam picked up, as the cleverly named CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003) was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate. As reported, “Up to 30 states have passed various anti-spam measures, and the flow of spam has continued to pick up steam.” The Senate pushes the rock up the hill, and the rock rolls right back down.

  • AOL filed suit against more than a dozen people for sending unsolicited messages to its subscribers. The dozen people sent more than a billion messages, resulting in 8 million people reporting the message as spam (that’s a pretty good click rate!). AOL has only been able to identify two of the spammers; the rest have hidden behind false personal information. AOL pushes the rock up the hill, and the rock rolls right back down.
  • The Washington Post reported Senator Charles Schumer will introduce a bill that includes a national do-not-spam registry, said to be similar to the do-not-call registry for telemarketers. It’s similar, yes, but most telemarketers are not hiding behind stolen bandwidth in Taiwan. The Senate, again, pushes the rock up the hill, and the rock rolls right back down.

What’s going on here? Why such a rush to pass legislation against something that, admittedly, cannot be stopped with legislation?

Legislators are getting pressure from constituents to do something, anything, about the spam problem. From a consumer standpoint, I believe what most people really mean is they no longer want to receive fraudulent offers or pornography in their inboxes (unsolicited pornography, at least). That’s completely understandable.

But legislation will not stop fraudulent offers or pornography on a widespread scale; the unscrupulous companies sending these messages do everything in their power (with great success) to make themselves anonymous. AOL has been unable to track these people down, and I highly doubt many citizens want an army of federal agents spending their time finding spammers. The current patchwork of state anti-spam laws hasn’t helped matters, simply confusing the issue for legitimate marketers trying to do some online acquisition.

As email marketing consultant and former AIM executive director Ben Isaacson noted in his ClickZ column a “tidal wave of anti-spam legislation… has swamped the nation,” yet the number of spam messages received by consumers continues to jump. Jupiter Research (a unit of this site’s parent corporation) believes consumers will receive nearly four times as much spam this year as they did in 2000, and the number will continue to grow. Americans can expect to receive 2,500 spam messages in their inboxes this year and 3,600 by 2007.

Alas, the tidal wave of anti-spam legislation has been met with a tidal wave of spam.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has, at long last, changed its stance on spam laws, saying it would support legislation against fraudulent messages and emails with falsified headers rather than relying on self-regulation (its longtime recommendation). Many considered the DMA to be stubborn on this issue (or, at least, leaning too heavily on the argument spam is free speech), but the association is correct in changing its position. The mishmash of state laws has not stopped the flow of unsolicited messages and has only succeeding in scaring legitimate marketers.

Yet, I feel quite torn about anti-spam legislation. I understand state and federal governments want to protect their citizens from offensive or fraudulent materials. However, this is not being accomplished. And I’m not sure I really want any government law enforcement resources going after petty spammers just to make a point. Legislators are fooling themselves if they think a do-not-email list will rid consumers of offensive messages.

A federal law along the lines of what the DMA recommends will be a part of the anti-spam campaign, even if it only scares off a few spammers who do not hide overseas. Certainly, the number of weight-loss-remedy messages I receive will decrease to some extent. But will it be noticeable? Will my life improve because of it? Will marketers’ messages be more likely to be read because a couple of spammers have been stopped? Probably not.

On a lighter note, I received a fantastic email marketing message last week from now-defunct online travel agency Trip’s owner, Cendant, announced it will shut down Trip and merge it into Cheap Tickets’s operations. Cendant had recently relaunched Trip with a $40 million marketing campaign, then decided to pull the plug on the struggling site. In announcing this to customers, Trip sent out an email campaign with the subject line, “Membership upgrade – Your membership just became more exciting!” Let me get this straight: The site is shut down because revenues are low, and somehow this translates into a more exciting membership for me. When life hands you lemons…

Meet Jared at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

Related reading