The unwanted and unsolicited e-mails that Internet users are forced to receive is known as Spam. These mails are usually commercial advertising, quasi-legal services, get-rich-quick schemes, etc. intended to mislead and deceive the recipients. The cost to the perpetrators of Spam is very little and it is the recipients and Internet service providers who pay heavily as a result. The most common form of spam is that delivered in e-mail as a commercial advertisement. However, over the course of electronic media history, people have spammed for various purposes other than commercial, and in different media than internet. Spammers have developed a variety of spamming techniques, which vary by media: email spam, instant messaging spam, Usenet newsgroup spam, Web search engine spam, spam in blogs, and mobile phone messaging spam. (Fight Spam on the Internet)
Spam can broadly be classified into Usenet spam and Email spam. Usenet spam is essentially targeted at “lurkers”, users who passively participate in newsgroups. Usenet spam renders the facility useless by overwhelming them with numerous irrelevant posts and messages. Also, such spam is difficult for the system administrators and owners to effectively deal with. The other category is the email spam, which affects individual email accounts. A particularly dangerous variety of email spam is the one targeted to private and public email discussion forums. Here, the spammers will employ automated tools to get access to as many mailing lists as possible so as to get hold of the individual email addresses. The spam is sometimes targeted directly at the mailing lists. (Graham)
Spam has a long history going back some three decades. The first spam was sent to all ARPANET addresses in the year 1978. Even prior to that non-network spam were reported going as far back as 1971. Years later, the first Usenet spam appeared in the guise of a charity event. However, the coining of the term “spam” was made only in 1996, when the phenomenon was beginning to make strides. The first “Make Money Fast” post was by Dave Rhodes. Though it was a standard chain letter, people started sending it to mailing lists and also posted it to several newsgroups for no apparent reason. However, most such “Make Money Fast” postings in the late 80’s and early 90s were generally one-off postings, and as such were not called spam. With the introduction of the idea of retro-moderation in 1993 by Richard Depew, Spam as we know it had finally arrived. The first spam that was widely circulated came on 18th January, 1994. Its subject line was “Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon. The next big spam outbreak was in the form of “Green Card Lottery – Final One?”, which was even more widely circulated than its predecessor. From being one-off events that occasionally stirred the internet, spam had now grown into uncontrollable proportions, causing large-scale wastage of useful resources. (Templeton)
It is important to ascertain that curbing spam is not an infringement on free speech laws. No. Free speech guarantees you the right to say what you want, within reasonable limits; it does not guarantee you a platform to make yourself heard in. Spam fails on this count. Also, different countries have different free speech laws. What may be legal in one country may be entirely unlawful elsewhere. So, cyber laws governing the Internet, which transcends international borders, can be quite a challenge. Lastly, there are many commonsense restrictions on the freedom of speech. For instance, abusive phone calls are considered harassment and no one would try to argue that controls on them would impinge on freedom of speech. As another example, you can not be forced to pay postage on paper junk mail sent to you. Every medium is different; common sense requires that different rules apply to handing out free leaflets in the park and calling people in their homes. Laws applicable to the Internet should take this fact into account. (Fight Spam on the Internet)
Spam typically cost users money out-of-pocket to receive. Most people use a measured Internet service to read or receive their mail. So the meter is running, so to speak even if it only takes 10 seconds to identify and delete a spam. And this expenditure is paid by the Internet user. On top of that, it costs money for Internet Service Providers and other online services to transmit spam, and these costs are shifted directly to subscribers, which is an unjust and undesirable situation. The judicial system had realized this and more court cases are being decided in favor of users and service providers and are being compensated for trespass and conversion. But it is relevant to note that some of the larger service providers were selling user accounts to spammers and were let go scot-free while making hefty profits out of it. It is important to take initiatives in controlling such unethical business transactions, if spam is to be effectively dealt with. (W\hat are the dangers of Spam?)
Spam can also act as suitable carriers for viruses, worms and Trojans into user’s personal computers. Though not every spammer wants to transmit viruses, a significant number of them do. These viruses come with varying malefic functionalities. While the vicious ones are meant to crash your computer, the milder ones simply spy on you when you are online. These are called spyware and adware. This mechanism forces you to go to particular websites each time you do a search. (W\hat are the dangers of Spam?)
Some spam also contains programs that attach themselves to your computer’s operating system, which is difficult to remove without interfering with the functionality of the operating system. In this way, spammers force advertisements for products or services on unsuspecting users. Getting rid of such spam would require the user to reinstall the operating system and set the system up from the scratch. If the user does not have proper backup of all the information in the computer, he/she may not be able to recover all of it.
The most effective technique to stop spam is with the help of filtering software. For example, such keywords as “million dollars”, “sex”, “Viagra”, etc, if found in the subject of the mail can be recognized as spam and deleted. However, these filters are quite easy to circumvent by spelling the keywords in unusual formats. Add to this the problem of blocking genuine e-mail that we intend to receive. Recent innovations known as Bayesian filters and heuristic filters use more advanced filtering techniques that are more effective in blocking spam. Unfortunately, every advance in controlling spam is matched by innovations from spammers to sidestep the hurdles. This is evident from the recent introduction of SoBigF viruses, which actively hunt and recruit “zombie machines”. These machines, once infected, start acting as automatic spammers. The virus opens up the affected personal computer for spammers, who then route their mails via these systems. (Graham)
With the explosive growth of the Internet the recent increase in professional spammers, has moved much faster than the laws, or the knowledge of the people who are supposed to enforce them. For instance, most people at the U.S. Federal Commission on Censorship, which has jurisdiction over interstate junk faxes, don’t even know what junk e-mail is, let alone how the laws they enforce apply to it. Concerted efforts from various interested parties are underway in bringing about legislations to confront spam. For instance, the U.S. federal government had proposed to set up a national “do not spam” list similar to the now existing “do not call” list. The latter was designed to thwart telemarketers. However, as spammers are unethical in their business practices, they could be expected to remain indifferent to any such legislation. Another proposal doing the rounds is an “opt-in” list, which has already been implemented in a few European countries. (Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email)
Spamming remains a serious topic of discussion across many forums. While endeavors are undertaken to eliminate spam some are worried about the undesirable side effects, such as more government monitoring of the internet, loss of privacy, restrictions on free speech, and even commercialization of email. Most internet users value the relative anarchy of the medium and authorities should take this into account when they consider changes to cyber laws.
If measures to control spam are not successful, it may eventually lead to the elimination of e-mail as we know it. Already some businesses are adopting different methods for communication. One such method involves filling up online forms for sending emails. This practice may grow more common in the future, which would put an end to traditional email. The volume of spam, and the inability to control that spam, may become so insurmountable that the traditional e-mail system we know today collapses and gets replaced either with forms or with a set of sophisticated, safe servers that put spammers out of business.
Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, 6th May 2006 <http://www.cauce.org>
Graham, Paul. “A Plan For Spam.” 8th May, 2006, <http://www.paulgraham.com/spam.html>
“What are the dangers of Spam?” Stop Spam Now. 7th May 2006, <http://www.stopspam-tips.co.za/what_are_the_dangers_of_spam.htm>