July 23, 2001

Rethinking spam

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
My email address (and several email aliases that feed into my primary email account) are on a number of popular Web sites, so I am a prime spam target. I get literally hundreds of pieces of unsolicited bulk email every day. And yet, I can understand the impulse that makes people become spammers, and I feel a certain amount of sympathy for businesses that use unsolicited email as a marketing tool. I also think spam has created at least one business opportunity that hasn't yet been exploited properly.

The "900" number problem

The original purpose of 900 phone numbers, where services you access through your telephone could be charged on your telephone bill instead of separately, was to deliver information like sports scores and stock prices. I remember a telco pitch, more than 20 years back, for poetry and music 900 services. But almost as soon as 900 numbers became readily available, they were co-opted by entrepreneurs who used them to provide sexual content, and the $3 per minute psychics jumped onto the 900 train shortly thereafter. From then on, any normal business that tried to provide legitimate information through a 900 number was tainted by association with the shady crowd using the same information delivery method.

The same thing has happened with direct email marketing. It is not that the idea of sending email asking Internet users to buy a product, join an association or vote for a candidate is inherently evil (in small doses), but that the idea has been misused so badly that it is tainted -- in many cases by people who have the same business mentality as the worst 900 number operators.

The positive side of bulk email marketing

Marketers who claim email is more ecologically sound than postal mail are right. No trees are killed and hardly any fuel is used to deliver spam.
Spam is less intrusive than telemarketing. It offers small businesses a chance to reach new customers at a fraction of the cost of older promotional tactics, and, in my opinion, anything that gives small businesses a chance to compete effectively with big ones is a good thing, because small businesses are the lifeblood of capitalism.

The negative side of bulk email marketing

This has been done to death, but my largest personal pet spam peeve has to do with the serial nature of email delivery. Example: I am in a hotel room, hooked to the Internet through a dialup modem that only gives me a true connection speed of 28KBPS, and I am checking my email because it is my primary means of communication with both readers and coworkers. Freelance writers submit story pitches by email, and some of those pitches are time-sensitive and need to be answered as close to immediataly as possible. Then there are the DMCA complaints. Part of my job at OSDN is to field DMCA and copyright infringement complaints, and these must be handled promptly. So I log in to get my email, and it take an hour for all of it to download because 90% of it is not just spam, but spam sent as bandwidth-sucking HTML or in some other non-ASCII format. Damn spammers!

Yes, I can and do filter spam once it hits my laptop, but the download time is the killer.

There are many other bad things about spam, but you already know them so there's no point in me doing a rehash here.

The business opportunity

Let's face it: today's most typical email pattern, where we use POP to download emails one at a time, in sequence, then sort our email on our client machines, is going to be killed by spam overload. Email handling must move almost entirely to corporate or ISP servers. IMAP is now a decent standard. There are Web email interfaces available, although most of them are clunky (slow and hard to use) compared to clientside POP or IMAP utilities.

I thought about using SpamCop's email filtering service, which costs $30 per year, but I had trouble getting their signup utility to accept multiple accounts, and I do not like Paypal, which is the only direct, online payment method they offer. Quite frankly, the SpamCop signup problems made the company look amateurish enough that I did not want to trust them with my email.

My roblimo.com Web site hosting and email service are currently provided by NTT/Verio, but I will probably move to Hostway before long because Hostway offers several services I need that NTT/Verio does not. Neither of these companies offers "built in" spamtrap or virus-elimination email utilities to small-time users that I have been able to find. I would pay extra for these services because they would save me time and money. If you know a hosting company that can reliably provide the equivalent of Hostway's Gold Plus account plan (minus the FrontPage extensions, which I do not need) that also includes spam and virus filtering service, please let me know. I will probably patronize that company. I suspect that many others would, too.

This would not necessarily be an expensive service to provide; SpamAssasin is a mature, respected solution that (I suspect) could easily be added to a user's email servers as as point/click option by a technically competent ISP or hosting service provider.

Yes, I know many ISPs provide spam filtering, but this doesn't help commercial users like me who use email aliases and may have multiple ISP accounts. Not only that, SpamAssasin uses the widely respected Vipul's Razor to determine what is and isn't spam, which means neither the user nor the hosting service need to devise filter criteria, which can be extremely time-consuming.

In a business as competitive and commoditized as Web hosting, serverside spam and virus filtering could become a powerful differentiator. Would I pay a premium price for it? Of course! I would happily pay the price of my current Hostway service plus the price of SpamCop. Remember, price -- $30 per year, plus $15 per year for each additional account in the same household -- was not the reason I have not signed up with SpamCop. My concern with them has to do with their management practices.

Killing legitimate email marketing

This article will probably help me find a hosting service that includes SpamAssasin email filtering. Suddenly I will be immune to virtually all email marketing efforts. Eventually spam filtering at the server level will become overwhelmingly popular, and marketing email will only be seen by new users or users of free email services like Yahoo and Hotmail -- which will no doubt start offering spam filtering options as part of their pay-for premium packages.

Members of the Direct Marketing Association and its spinoff, the Association for Interactive Marketing, probably won't like widespread spam filtering. To them, this is as bad as the Post Office offering a "deliver no solicition mail to this address" option to postal patrons.

I feel little sympathy for (potentially) legitimate email marketers at this point. Their trade groups have consistently fought anti-spam legislation, even though removing the nastiest spammers from the Internet would make people like me less likely to block all email marketing efforts.

"As ye sow, so shall ye reap" is an appropriate quote in this context, is it not?

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