Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

The debate over spam, the digital spew that clogs the e-mail boxes of the masses, rages on. Well, it’s not a debate, exactly, since virtually everyone agrees that spam, a k a UCE (unsolicited commercial e-mail), is a scourge on humanity. But if there is no debate going on, there certainly is a war, and humanity is losing.

In spam we witness the awesome fecundity of a marketing medium completely unconstrained by costs. Among viral marketing schemes, it is the bubonic plague. According to The Wall Street Journal, some 430 billion e-mails will choke the arteries of the information superhighway this year. By 2006 that number could approach 1 trillion, raising the specter of corporate computer-system crashes and thousands of working hours wasted on hitting the delete key. By then, according to estimates from research firm the Radicati Group, 39 percent of system traffic will be spam.

Some estimates put the cost of spam to corporate America at $8 billion a year and the cost to Internet service providers—and thus their custom ers—at $3 a month. If e-mail is the Internet’s killer app, then spam has the potential to become the killer app killer.

Even the Direct Marketing Association is against spam—although not enough to support the several bills aimed at regulating unsolicited mail now before Congress. Still, the association acknowledges the obvious: The sheer ubiquity of spam and the irritation or, worse, obliviousness it produces in the consumer is ruining things for legitimate e-mail marke ters. Unfortunately, the difference between spam and “legitimate” e-mail marketing, both unsolicited and otherwise, is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m sorry to report that along with spam for breast enhancers and penis enlargements, I regularly receive e-mail from sites I gave permission to contact me. These are a legacy of my Internet newbie days, when I naively imagined such e-mail alerts would actually contain useful information or make attractive, relevant offers. I quickly learned this was not the case.

Marketers use e-mail the same way they use television: to tell me what they want me to know or buy. This is rarely—make that never—information I am looking for. Worse, the e-mails inevitably arrive when I’m busy or concerned with something else. So even if they were useful, I wouldn’t know, because I long ago stopped opening them. They just get flushed out of my mailbox. Thus I was not in the least surprised to read in the WSJ that responses to e-mail ads have fallen to the same dismal levels generated by other forms of Internet advertising.

For all of us on the receiving end, there’s not much difference between the billions of e-mails sent out by Procter & Gamble and the billions sent out by peddlers of cut-rate Viagra. All commercial e-mail tends toward the condition of spam.

Hounded Internet users can turn to any number of filters, programs or dummy mailboxes to keep the ratio of spam to real e-mail down to, say, a manageable four to one. Yet, in the long run, the struggle between computer users and content providers (yes, junk e-mail counts as content, too) will not be settled by technology. This is as true for spam and spam filters as it is for digital copyright holders and digital copyists. Whatever technology solution one party uses to protect its interests will be trumped by the opposing party in an all-too-familiar arms race. The only foolproof technological way to rid one’s life of spam is to get rid of one’s e-mail altogether, a drastic step consumers don’t seem ready to take. Not yet, anyway.

Which brings us to regulation, legislation and the dread prospect of “opt-in” requirements, words that strike terror in the marketing lobby. Earlier this year the Federal Trade Commission began more aggressively pursuing spam that shills phony weight-loss schemes or fraudulently solicits personal information. There are also several bills that have been kicking around Congress since 1998, one of which Senate Commerce chairman Fritz Hollings hopes to bring to the floor this month. If ever there were a time when punitive or restrictive business laws had a fighting chance, it would be now.

Meanwhile, the marketing industry, like every industry threatened by legislation, is calling for “self-regulation.” That cry, however, rings a little hollow these days. On the other hand, thus far none of corporate America’s shenanigans have produced anything beyond a lot of hyper ventilating on C-Span. So don’t bet on legislative relief anytime soon. For a form of marketing that everyone professes to loathe, there sure are a lot of business and financial interests there ready to see that it survives to irritate us another day.