Man Without Qualities

Saturday, August 30, 2003

More On A "Do Not Spam" Registry

A clever and knowledgeable reader e-mails:

You commented about the "do not call" registry and mentioned a possible "do not spam" registry. It remains to be seen how effective the no-call list will be, but there's a few reasons why a no-spam list wouldn't just be ineffective, but would be quite likely to increase, not decrease, the burden of spam.

There are several major differences between spam and telemarketing. First, telemarketing isn't, by and large, prohibited - whereas at least in theory, the sending of unsolicited commercial emails is against the terms of service of *every* ISP. There's no such thing as "legitimate" spam, and spammers already have their connections revoked whenever they're tracked down.

Of course, as I'm sure you've noticed, this doesn't mean that you don't get spam, which brings me to the second major difference. The telephone network is extremely regulated and hierarchical. Access is strictly controlled by a tiny handful of gatekeepers, and every call is monitored and logged (for billing purposes, if nothing else). It is always possible to track a phone call back and get the number, name, and address of the caller. The internet in general (and email in particular) is much more freeform, with very little monitoring or control, and virtually no reliable "audit trail". Most spam has forged headers, and it's quite easy to make the source untraceable. What this means is that it would be trivial to identify alleged violators of a no-call list, but almost impossible to identify alleged violators of a putative no-spam list.

These two differences argue that a no-spam list would be ineffective, but there's a third difference that might make a no-spam list counterproductive. The limiting factor in the volume of telemarketing calls you receive is cost. Telemarketing is actually quite expensive, and even after you set up a call center, the marginal cost of each additional call remains relatively high, since you've got to pay an actual real live person to make it. But spam is cheap. No spammer is ever unable to afford to send one more spam. Instead the limiting factor is addresses. You just need to look in a phone book to find telephone numbers, but email addresses are much harder to come by, which is why spammers have to go to extraordinary lengths to get them (for example, spidering through websites). Even then, most addresses found aren't good. People change email a lot, or post fake addresses. For a spammer, the dream would be to find a large list of millions of valid addresses that are actually read by "real" people. Which, of course, is an excellent description of what a no-spam list would be!

If such a no-spam list was ever setup, it would be surprising if those who signed up didn't get an order of magnitude more spam, not less. And indeed, there have already been a couple of private attempts at setting up such a thing - all of them scams run by spammers. Fun fun fun...

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