Problem Statement

Table of Contents:


Electronic mail abuse has been a serious problem on the Internet in recent years, and all signs indicate that the problem is accelerating. Everyone connected to the Internet is feeling its impact. Servers are crashing, services are being impaired, and networks are becoming more congested. Service providers and businesses are being forced to purchase equipment and hire staff at great expense solely to subsidize the advertising of others. End users and consumers suffer as well when these costs are passed on to them.

The following statement outlines in more detail the reasons electronic mail abuse is a significant problem for the Internet and a threat to the viability of the electronic mail delivery system.

Unsolicited Broadcast E-mail Forces 
Recipients and Their Providers to Bear the
Costs of Processing and Storing Messages

Suppose direct marketers approached Congress with a proposal requiring telephone companies to assume the expenses of running telemarketing campaigns. Telephone companies would be required to hire and pay staff, acquire equipment and facilities, and pay for phone lines. Direct marketers would simply provide a list of contacts and a script for operators to read.

Or suppose the US Postal Service was asked to assume all of the costs of printing, processing and delivering direct mail, and the direct mailers only provided an original and a list of recipients.

Obviously, these proposals are absurd, yet this is exactly what is being asked of online service providers by abusers of electronic mail. Direct marketers who distribute unsolicited broadcast e-mail (UBE) make use of the private property of network owners and online service providers, and force online service providers to pay for staff and equipment at great expense for the direct and exclusive benefit of advertisers, and do so without compensating online service providers. If the direct marketing industry proposed to have the telephone companies or the US Postal Service bear the expense of direct marketing campaigns such proposals would be rejected immediately as preposterous. Yet, the direct marketing industry makes this very demand when it forces online service providers to bear the costs of online marketing campaigns.

The methods by which UBE is distributed entails theft of services, trespass and unauthorized access to the computer systems of online service providers, businesses, and educational institutions, as well as owners of personal computers. UBE is unique in that the recipient is forced to assume almost all of the costs of e-mail messages. UBE is even worse than postage-due junk mail and collect-call telemarketing: you can refuse postage-due junk mail or collect telemarketing calls, but a recipient of UBE must assume its costs as soon as the message is delivered to his/her provider's servers!

Online Service Providers Incur Significant
Costs in Handling Existing UBE Volumes

Notwithstanding the public statements of its advocates, UBE has a significant adverse impact on online service providers, telecommunications providers, Internet users and consumers. UBE needs tight control, not a broad grant of access to the private property of unwilling users.

SBC Internet Services (SBCIS) spent approximately $500,000 in early 1998 in order to handle the increased load on its system caused by UBE. SBCIS anticipated that it would be forced to spend $3 million in the following year for additional equipment, capacity and staff in order to manage even the most conservative estimates of the growth in email traffic. SBCIS projected that its incremental costs over the next three years will be no less than $20 million. These additional expenditures are solely for equipment and staff necessary to handle UCE, above and beyond the capacity necessary to handle SBCIS's growing customer base.

These additional costs represent an impermissible cost shifting by advertisers onto online and email service providers. Several providers who studied the issue learned that the costs of dealing with UBE amounted to 10% of their operating costs. A revealing Internet Week article surveyed a variety of both large and medium-sized online service providers; this article shows there can be no doubt that UBE has imposed significant costs throughout the online industry. Numerous successful online service providers discovered that their costs associated with dealing with UBE were between $1 and $3 per customer per month!

The costs online service providers must bear in handling even the current volumes of UBE are already significant, and any legislation stopping short of an outright ban on UBE will make the situation far worse. Ample evidence was provided by the activities of bulk e-mailers after the US Senate passed S. 1618 on May 12, 1998. Some observers reported a five-fold increase in UBE. SBCIS observed a mere doubling in the amount of UBE being processed by its servers beginning in the middle of May 1998, so that UBE began approaching 50% of total e-mail volume at SBCIS.

A large number of messages purporting to be in compliance with S. 1618 contained invalid addresses for remove requests, or bulk e-mailers failed to comply with remove requests. Many loopholes identified in this problem statement are being exploited already: one bulk emailer advised recipients that they would be required to submit remove requests for each email address from which he would be sending UCE messages! Another bulk emailer advised the unwitting recipients that "this letter can not be delt with as spam and no further action can be taken by you the reader against Any report of this letter as spam to any independent agency or site is a violation of Bill S.1618 title III of the U.S. Congress and will be delt with promptly." Clearly, bulk e-mailers already are interpreting S. 1618 (which failed to obtain House approval and consequently expired at the end of the 105th Session) as an unlimited license to distribute UBE leaving recipients no alternative but to receive unsolicited messages.

UBE Has Adverse Economic Impacts Far 
Beyond Costs for Additional Capacity

The economic impact of UBE extends far beyond immediate requirements for additional capacity, servers, and staff. The following additional adverse effects are expected if UBE is not controlled:
  • Some online service providers with less capitalization will be unable to afford the additional facilities necessary to handle increased e-mail volumes. Service will suffer and loss of customers is likely, with many providers driven out of business by the sharply increased costs of doing business.
  • Larger network access providers, including SBCIS, and telecommunications providers such as SBC Communications, will suffer if smaller providers go out of business because these larger providers derive significant revenues from the smaller providers. SBC Communications telecommunications units derive revenues from leasing transport facilities to ISPs, and SBCIS contributes additional revenues from providing IP network services. The loss of this business could have a significant adverse impact on the entire telecommunications industry.
  • Large providers are not currently prepared to absorb the business of customers stranded by smaller providers that have gone out of business, thus significantly reducing consumer choice, perhaps even squelching consumer interest in the Internet altogether.
  • The Internet mail delivery system will become far more unreliable, thus negating years of efforts focused on making e-mail more dependable. This lack of dependability has been a significant factor impeding broader use of e-mail. Even today, delivery of e-mail messages is far from certain, but a flood of UBE will vastly decrease the probability of successful delivery. Such an unreliable communications channel is useless for business purposes, or for anyone else!
  • Service impairments such as the one experienced by Pacific Bell Internet in March 1998 will become more common (the "brownout" received broad coverage in online news media services; see the Wired News first report and the follow-up story one month later, as well as a ZDNet article and a C|Net article). Almost all major Internet service providers have been affected already, including AT&T, GTE, @Home, and Netcom, as well as hundreds of smaller providers all across the country.
  • It is conceivable that the electronic mail medium could be abandoned altogether. Electronic mail is not a useful communications tool if message delivery is highly uncertain. Electronic mail will also lose its appeal if UBE is so voluminous that messages of interest to the recipient cannot be found easily. The Small Business Administration recently reported that there were 22 million businesses in the United States. If only one percent of those business send only one message in the next year, recipients will be sorting through almost one thousand messages every day!
  • Significant labor productivity costs are expected. The aggregate productivity costs associated with SBC Communications employees receiving and handling UBE at their workplace is estimated to be at least $5 million per year. All businesses whose employees have access to Internet email will be affected proportionately.
  • UBE is so abhorred that there is a tendency towards stigmatizing *any* commercial use of email. This has had a chilling effect on companies wishing to market their goods or services via the Internet using methods that do not involve UBE.
  • There are indications that the stigmatization of UBE is spreading to other forms of direct marketing. The pejorative term for UBE -- "spam" -- is being applied to direct mail. Some members of the anti-spam community have stated that they intend to address abuses by telemarketing firms after the legislative issues around UBE have been resolved. By insisting on the prerogative of distributing UBE, direct marketers may antagonize a sufficient number of people so that consumer backlash against other forms of direct marketing may accelerate.
  • Research has shown that many consumers are avoiding the Internet because they fear receiving large amounts of UBE. A concern about receiving pornographic solicitations is mentioned often, by parents in particular. The SBCIS abuse department receives numerous outraged letters from parents whose children have inadvertently seen pornographic solicitations for adult web sites.
  • The UBE phenomenon has had a demonstrable effect in chilling discussions on newsgroups and mailing lists, thus inhibiting open communications and the free flow of ideas which the Internet was intended to foster. Many have abandoned newsgroups and mailing lists altogether. Others have found it necessary to take measures to avoid having their email addresses harvested by bulk emailers; these same measures make legitimate communications more difficult.

Consumers Are Overwhelmingly Opposed to Receiving UBE

All surveys of consumers conducted to date reveal an overwhelming dislike of unsolicited commercial email. Even the surveys most favorable to the bulk emailers show that fully two-thirds of the respondents consider spam offensive; less than seven per cent find spam useful. See, e.g.,, and Two separate surveys showed strikingly similar results, with more than 45% professing that they hated spam, while another 25% merely find it annoying. Only 20% find spam tolerable, leaving the percentage of those who appreciate spam in the single digits. See, and

Each of the surveys mentioned above showed consistent results: two-thirds of the respondents favored legislation prohibiting unsolicited commercial email. Other surveys indicate even stronger sentiment against UBE. In one survey, 77% of those surveyed -- more than three-quarters -- were offended by unsolicited bulk email ( Perhaps the strongest statement of all was made when a major online service announced that legislation controlling UBE was one of ten laws the Internet needed most, and invited readers to agree or disagree. Over 32,000 responded, and 84 % indicated that sending unsolicited advertising via email should be prohibited unless the sender has a pre-existing relationship with the recipient or their consent to receive messages. (

Survey data is one thing, but having one's own customers loudly and vehemently expressing their displeasure with unsolicited bulk email is another. Most ISPs report that complaints about UBE is now the number one complaint they hear from their customers. The handful of complaints SBCIS was receiving three years ago has grown to the point that half of the mail its abuse department receives is from its own customers complaining about spam they received. SBCIS is already blocking all mail from domains known to distribute junk email, but its customers are demanding that junk e-mail be blocked and filtered even more aggressively. Many parents are particularly concerned about advertisements promoting adult web sites which have been received by their children.

UBE and Privacy

Proponents of spam regulation typically stress the cost-shifting aspects of UBE as this is the greatest harm caused by UBE and an argument which legislatures and courts have repeatedly found convincing.

Consumers are impacted only indirectly by the cost-shifting aspects of UBE, however, so economic issues do not adequately explain the passion felt by most endusers when spam becomes a topic of discussion. For consumers, cost-shifting is not nearly as significant as the privacy issues raised by UBE.

UBE impacts privacy in the following ways:

  • Personal information (e-mail addresses) being used without subject's knowledge and prior consent;
  • Personal information being collected, sold or traded without subject's knowledge and prior consent;
  • Personal information being collected, sold or traded fraudulently against subject's stated wishes;
  • Personal information being collected, used, sold, or traded fraudulently in contravention of policies under which such information was acquired;
  • Purposes for which personal information is used are not adequately disclosed;
  • Stated purposes for use of personal information are not always followed;
  • Collectors of personal information often require disclosure of even more personal information from subjects wishing to restrict use of their personal information;
  • Fraudulent or malicious use of personal information of a third-party, e.g., in order to perpetrate "identity theft";
  • Opt-out marketing schemes force subjects to list themselves in order to stem the tide of promotional materials, thereby divulging not only e-mail addresses but negative preferences which can be cross-referenced with other negative and positive preferences to profile subjects. Opt-out inherently forces mandatory and deepening invasions of subjects' privacy rights -- the right to be left alone.

Additional Adverse Impacts of UBE

Consumers will be adversely impacted by the unregulated proliferation of UBE in the following ways:
  • Increased service provider fees from providers passing increased costs onto their customers;
  • Increased inconvenience in handling unwanted email;
  • Lost productivity and time in handling unwanted email
  • Loss of utility of email as UBE overwhelms messages in which a recipient is interested;
  • Loss of control over the contents of their mailboxes;
  • Impaired service;
  • Decreased privacy;
  • Less choice in a smaller market;
  • Well-known market distorting effects of decreased competition;
  • Decreased trust and interest in online commerce;
  • Decreased interest in the Internet.

The Gartner Study

The experience of SBCIS and other Internet service providers was confirmed and quantified by the Gartner study commissioned by BrightMail Inc. A copy of this report, ISPs and Spam: The Impact of Spam on Customer Retention and Acquisition, is available here. This study conclusively demonstrated the significant costs to ISPs resulting from handling UBE.

More importantly, the Gartner study demonstrated indirect costs to ISPs by establishing a relationship between UBE and customer churn. Controlling churn, or customer turnover, is a key factor in an ISP's success. Customer acquisition costs are such that a customer must remain with an ISP for a period of time before the ISP recoups those acquisition costs. Unfortunately, however, UBE is a major cause of customers leaving an ISP under the assumption that doing so will reduce the amount of UBE they receive. Thus, UBE is detrimental to an ISP's profitability.

Internet Standards and Rules of the
Forum Prohibit UBE

The Internet is a self-regulating community of shared resources and functions only because there is agreement on rules of the forum. RFCs (Request for Comments) and BCPs (Best Current Practices) are the documents reflecting consensus on Internet standards, protocols and rules of the forum.

The Internet Engineering Task Force has issued RFC 2635 which addresses UBE. It is important to note that commercial use of electronic mail is not prohibited, but, rather, unsolicited broadcast electronic mail is prohibited because of its harmful impact on the Internet and its connected networks.

A second document, RFC 2505, deals with the necessity of securing mail servers so that they are not used for the unauthorized distribution of UBE.

The London Internet Exchange (LINX) has published a Best Current Practice for Combating Unsolicted Bulk Email, thus reflecting international consensus not only on the impropriety of UBE but also on the responsibilities of network managers to ensure that abuse of their systems is kept to a minimum. LINX has also published a Best Current Practice for Traceability which MAPS endorses and recommends for systematic implementation; widespread adopting of the LINX standards would reduce all forms of network abuse significantly.

By Nick Nicholas, last revised: July 22, 2004.

Contact Me   About Me