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
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.
Recipients and Their Providers to Bear the
Costs of Processing and Storing Messages
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
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.
Costs in Handling Existing UBE Volumes
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
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
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 Ads@cashfromhome.com. 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
UBE Has Adverse Economic
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:
Beyond Costs for Additional Capacity
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
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,
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
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., http://www.dgl.com/dglinfo/1997/dg970427.html,
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 http://www.survey.net/spam1r.html,
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 (http://web.archive.org/web/19981202065408/
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. (http://www.cnet.com/Content/Features/Dlife/
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
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
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
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
Loss of utility of email as UBE overwhelms messages
in which a recipient is interested;
Loss of control over the contents of their mailboxes;
Less choice in a smaller market;
Well-known market distorting effects of decreased
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
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.
Forum Prohibit UBE
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
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.