Spam -- unsolicited commercial e-mail -- is growing out of control. Experts say spam threatens the very existence of the Internet. The European Union this year looks set to take the lead in restricting junk e-mail, but its efforts may prove ineffective if the United States and other countries do not follow suit.
Prague, 30 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Spam -- those unwanted and frequently offensive e-mails pitching everything from easy money to rapid weight loss and better sex -- is the bane of Internet users around the world.
It now accounts for around half of all e-mail messages sent every day -- up from 10 percent just a couple of years ago.
Experts say that, if left unchecked, spam could effectively kill off e-mail as a means of communication.
There is a song from a famous television skit by the British comedy troupe Monty Python, which celebrates a famous U.S. brand of canned seasoned pork. It's where spam got its name. In the skit, a man and woman try to order food in a restaurant. Their order is drowned out by a group of rowdy Vikings sitting at a nearby table yelling the word "spam" at the top of their lungs.
In much the same way, experts say the flood of spam e-mail is now drowning out legitimate communication.
George Mills is the chairman of the European Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email -- a group that favors tougher restrictions on spam. He paints a bleak picture of a future in which individual Internet users are forced to process thousands or even millions of junk e-mails every day. He says the system -- and users -- simply couldn't cope.
"If you look at it, the potential [is there] of millions of senders. Are you ready? Would you be ready to cope with millions of messages in your mailbox? You probably think you are already coping with millions [of spam e-mails] now, but you're probably only dealing with hundreds or thousands," Mills says.
The reason for the spam explosion is mostly economic. The cost to companies of sending bulk e-mail is essentially zero. Even if only one in 1,000 recipients responds to a spam e-mail message, the business can still be profitable.
This contrasts, for example, with junk mail sent through the post office, where the cost to senders can be relatively high. This cost imposes a natural limit on companies and keeps the level of paper junk mail at manageable levels.
Computer users around the world are up in arms. Many are repulsed by the vulgar content of some spam messages. Businesses warn of falling productivity as their workers lose valuable time each day reading and deleting unsolicited e-mail.
Governments are responding with new laws, but it's not yet clear how best to restrict unwanted spam while continuing to allow the Internet to be used for legitimate commercial purposes.
One approach, favored by the European Union, is to allow companies to send unsolicited e-mails only to individuals who have already consented to receiving the messages. This is commonly referred to as "opt in."
In fact, this approach was used effectively a decade ago to eliminate junk faxes that were clogging up fax machines and wasting ink and paper. Such faxes are now mostly a thing of the past.
The European Commission last year passed a law on data protection that mandated the "opt in" approach for unsolicited e-mail. European Union member countries now have until the end of October to adopt and enforce the law.
The U.S. has taken a different approach. There, lawmakers are leaning toward what they call "opt out," meaning companies can continue to send unsolicited e-mail to anyone provided a person has not specifically said he or she does not want to receive it.
Mills explains the difference: "'Opt in' assumes that permission [for companies to send junk e-mail] is not given and must be requested. 'Opt out' assumes that permission [to send junk e-mail] is [already] there and can be withdrawn unless there is an objection that has been posted in some recognized public place."
Supporters say the "opt out" approach gives better protection to companies, but detractors say it is unworkable in practice. Mills says that an individual could conceivably spend most of his or her life writing e-mail to opt out of receiving spam.
Alastair Tempest is the director-general of the Federation of European Direct Marketing in Brussels -- a commercial nongovernmental organization that supports the interests of direct marketers. These include companies that use the Internet for commercial purposes.
He tells RFE/RL that his group is also opposed to unsolicited mass e-mailing. He calls it a "cancer" that threatens to destroy the integrity of direct marketing.
"We make a very clear distinction between 'marketing' -- that is, sending people things that they want to hear based on good targeting of people, the keeping of people's names when they've bought something, and sending them material about other products that they will be interested in -- so good professional marketing -- and 'spam,' which is untargeted mass sending of messages without any reason at all," Tempest says.
Tempest agrees that tough action is needed to stop spammers but says the "opt in" versus "opt out" debate isn't relevant. What's needed, he says, is better enforcement of existing laws. He says many spammers could be shut down now for violating laws on public decency and making false product claims.
"Pass legislation -- yes, that's good. [But] pass more legislation, well, you're starting to waste your time, really. You shouldn't constantly be looking at passing legislation. You should be looking at the way in which that legislation is being adopted, and how it's being implemented and how it's actually being enforced," Tempest says.
Tempest points out that around half of the 150 or so largest companies involved in sending spam are located in the United States. He questions what effect the new, tougher laws in Europe will have if authorities in the U.S. and the rest of the world don't aggressively crack down on spammers.
Experts say an end to spam is not in sight. But they say individuals can take some precautions to minimize the amount of spam they receive.
Mills says the first rule is never to respond to unsolicited e-mail, even if only to tick a box that says "please do not send me any more e-mails."
"If you respond to a spam with a request to opt out, you will be confirming that the address that you have is live, is valid, and is read by a human being," Mills says.
Such information is highly valuable to spammers, since they generate many of their target e-mails electronically and have no idea whether the e-mail addresses are valid or not.
Finally, experts warn to be highly skeptical of spammers' claims. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.