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Should we re-define the spam debate?

1352 words
30 March 2003
Financial Times (FT.Com)

Copyright (c) 2003 Financial Times Group

I - did - not - get - my - email is a new forum on Yahoo! Groups where people can register e-mails which they had asked to receive but did not get. They are invited to report commercial e-mails, such as company e-newsletters, which get caught in 'spam traps' set by managers of corporate email networks and Internet Service Providers.

The forum reflects the latest twist in the debate about junk e-mail or spam. A group of 27 US-based e-mail marketing companies have banded together to set it up, in order to raise an issue which concerns the e-mail marketing industry generally.

E-newsletters, and other corporate e-mail communications - product and pricing updates, special offer alerts, technical information, seminar invitations - are generally sent out in bulk, with volumes ranging from a few hundred to more than 100,000 at a time. They are usually sent only to people who have an existing relationship with the business.

However, these genuine communications are increasingly falling victim to so-called "anti-spam" software, which is designed to catch junk e-mails before they enter corporate or ISP networks. These unwitting victims are known as false positives, because they are wrongly classed as spam or junk, and thrown out with the real junk.

The idea of the Yahoo Groups forum is to generate a list that can be given to vendors and users of anti-spam software. They will be asked to check incoming e-mails against the list, and allow wanted communications through to the recipients.

The underlying concern is that the genuine e-mail marketing business could be killed off by the dual threat of spam, and the fight against it. From an e-mail marketer's perspective, this threat is very real, and should be taken seriously. If the spam volumes grow unabated, and spam traps do not get the checks and balances right, we have a no-win situation.

E-mail marketing is currently a growth sector of the marketing services industry. Figures from market research company Jupiter Research indicate that the e-mail marketing business was worth around $1.4bn last year, and could grow to $2.1bn in 2003.

Such growth levels could easily be realistic. E-mail marketing is a cost-effective and resource-efficient way to communicate business information to contacts - who may be customers, suppliers, partner companies, distributors or sales prospects. Many businesses are starting to take advantage of it and marketing services companies are building a business based on it. Under normal circumstances, we would expect to see this sector grow over the next few years.

Unfortunately, spam is also growing. Figures for spam growth vary, but they run into billions of messages per year. Estimates suggest it is now as much as 40 per cent of all e-mail traffic - up from around 8 per cent a year ago.

The menace of spam cannot be understated, and it is widely reported. From an e-mail marketer's perspective, spam reduces the effectiveness of a corporate e-mail communications programme by drowning legitimate e-mails, causing users to delete all of them.

It does not help when marketing professionals in legitimate businesses contribute to the problem - perhaps unwittingly - by purchasing lists of people's e-mail addresses from third parties. These lists are often claimed to be OK because they are "opt-in". However, the criteria by which these lists are claimed to be "opt-in" are variable.

For example, I recently received a sales call from a UK marketing services company offering the e-mail addresses of 19m European consumers. Lists of these addresses are being sold to large and reputable brand owners - household-name companies - who send out unsolicited emails to the recipients. I was informed that all of the addresses were "opt-in", but when I queried what this meant, the salesman struggled to provide a satisfactory answer.

The sheer volumes of spam that are clogging up corporate networks and server space have forced IT and ISP managers to act. Large organisations can get literally hundreds of thousands of spam e-mails per month. And AOL, the internet service provider, reported last month that it gets 780m junk e-mail messages per day.

IT managers are passionate about leading the fight against spam. In the words of one IT manager I spoke to, "it is war". It is rather like a guerrilla war, with positions and tactics changing daily. This is why it is so hard to win it.

The most powerful weapon for IT departments is so-called "anti-spam" software. It works by testing each incoming e-mail against a set of pre-determined criteria. This is the so-called "spam trap". If the e-mail passes, it gets through; if not, it is held back and may be deleted before it gets to the intended recipient. The software may also block the sender's address or put their domain on an industry blacklist. It is very difficult to get a domain removed from one of these blacklists, which are operated by enthusiasts. Once a domain is on a blacklist, e-mails just can't get through to anywhere that has the anti-spam software installed.

E-mail can easily fail the tests and be trapped. For example, in one popular package, an e-mail is penalised if it "claims you can be removed from the list". However, all legitimate e-mails should contain information stating how you can opt-out from further e-mails, so this makes it difficult for legitimate communications to get through.

It is therefore unsurprising that there are so many "false positives". A US survey by Assurance Systems claims that on average some 15 per cent of e-mails with opt-in permission are false positives. From an e-mail marketer's perspective, that represents quite a high non-delivery rate.

It is understandably difficult to get the criteria right. The dilemma of false positives is brought into focus when you consider the case of the Viagra anti-impotence drug. The same software package will stop any e-mail which "plugs Viagra", and it is true that a common spam e-mail does just that. Yet Viagra is a trademarked product, owned by Pfizer, a large US pharmaceutical company, and there may be cases where the product is being promoted by e-mail to an audience that wants the information.

The problem for genuine e-mail marketers is that they are caught in the middle. Both sides in this war threaten to damage their business.

Finding a solution isn't going to be easy. Legislation, led by the US and the European Union, seeks to stamp out spam, but one could take the view that it is too little too late. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are rules and regulations being brought in, but there are few powers of enforcement, as yet.

What needs to happen is a joined-up debate between the marketing professionals and those running corporate IT and ISP systems.

Initiatives such as I - did - not - get - my - email are interesting. However, marketing professionals need to recognise that e-mail marketing is not a cheap substitute for direct mail. In the fight against spam, list purchase is not an option. That means they have to work harder, and think smarter to make email marketing work for themselves and their clients.

IT departments need likewise to understand that businesses need to talk to each other and that e-mail marketing is a legitimate form of communication with commercial contacts. There needs to be co-operation with marketers and users setting up appropriate corporate processes - for example, to remove blocks on genuine e-mails (some companies have "white lists" for this purpose).

Only by talking and recognising the issues as they affect business as a whole, can we come up with a workable solution.

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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

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