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I Don't Like Spam

I Don't Like Spam: A Personal History and Analysis

Jeff Johnson, CPSR/Palo Alto

Appendix B: Spam-Related Excerpt from CHI-97 Talk

Excerpted from:
Johnson, Jeff, CHI'97 Invited Talk
"Universal Access to the Net: Requirements and Social Impact"

Effect on spamming, junk email

How will having many more people online affect the dataglut and junk mail many of us experience?

I worked at Xerox in the early 80s. Xerox was one of the first companies to use email extensively for internal communication. There were distribution lists corresponding to the organizational hierarchy. There was a problem of occasional spamming (although it wasn't called that then), such as employees sending messages to all Xerox (tens of thousands of employees worldwide) selling Amway products or offering free kittens.

A colleague expressed concern that when email spread widely outside of Xerox (which it now has) some people would send messages to the world. I argued then that the lack of a world list or other similar lists made that impossible.

Well, I was wrong: currently, large lists are being compiled and abused. It is possible to send a message to all America Online subscribers, and enough advertisers do it that a friend of mine just switched from AOL: he got tired of receiving five ads a day. Even just browsing the Web can land you on dozens of e-mail marketing lists.

Economics of Spam

Let's consider the economics of spam. For any mass mailing, the factors limiting the number of recipients are the costs of list-compilation and of duplicating and mailing. For postal mail, duplicating and mailing costs are significant. This limits the amount of postal junk mail you receive (even though you may not consider it limited).

With email, duplication and mailing are free, so spamming is more likely. The only limiting factor is the cost of collecting or otherwise obtaining mailing lists.

Sometime when I argue against collection of consumer data, my opponents respond that consumer privacy is the problem, not the solution, that is, compiling more info about consumers would reduce the amount of junk mail because it would let advertisers target only those who are truly interested.

This argument is valid for postal junk mail, for which duplicating and mailing costs are significant. Advertisers don't want to waste money mailing stuff to you if you're just going to toss it. But with email and newsgroups, advertisers save nothing by targetting messages narrowly. They might as well spam everyone they can just in case someone might be interested.

The bottom line here is that data abuse and spamming must be addressed, especially as more people come online, or the net won't be a pleasant place. How might we address it?

Combatting Spam

One approach is social: develop, teach, and promote cyber-responsibilities and cyberethics: netiquette. We shouldn't assume that everyone who comes online just naturally knows netiquette. This is especially important for young people.

At the same time, we can pursue technological anti-spam measures. We in the HCI field can help to develop better searching methods, removing the pressure to make the net more push-oriented. HCI professionals can also develop better email filtering mechanisms: 'cause we're gonna need 'em!

Others in the computer field can help by developing measures to thwart list compilation. Or perhaps Internet service providers could consider charging postage per recipient, thereby introducing the same factor that limits postal junk mail.

Finally, we can try legislative and regulatory solutions, such as limiting spamming by commercial advertisers, or limiting collection and sharing of consumer data.

This page last updated on February 1, 1998 by Paul Hyland.

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