You are going to read an article about junk e-mail. For each question, choose the answer which you think fits best according to the text.
The volume of unwanted e-mail, or “spam”, is soaring. But is there an acceptable way to block it?
Reading e-mails each morning used to be a relatively pleasant task for most people, at work or at home. Now it can be as delightful as sorting through the garbage. Offers of “prescription-free Viagra”, penis-enlargement treatments, pornography, cheap loans and get-rich-quick schemes are cascading across the internet, pouring billions of unwanted messages—universally known as “spam”—into e-mail in-boxes. The volume of spam has soared recently, threatening to cripple e-mail, the “killer application” that helped to popularise the internet and then became an essential tool for businesses everywhere.
Spam has suddenly become such a headache that pressure is growing for government action to stop it. Next week America’s Federal Trade Commission will hold a three-day meeting of regulators, business leaders and consumer activists to discuss ways to curb spam. America Online (AOL) and Microsoft have even joined forces to push for federal legislation to combat it. Earlier this month AOL filed five lawsuits in Virginia, seeking $10m in damages against some of the biggest spammers.
Unwanted bulk e-mail jumped by about 4% in March and now accounts for 45% of overall e-mail traffic, up from only 8% in September 2001, according to Brightmail, a firm that specialises in anti-spam filtering software. Brightmail has an obvious interest in highlighting the problem, but its estimates make sense. Most e-mail users can testify to spam’s growth. Using software filters and tips from its own customers, AOL is now blocking an average of 780m junk e-mails daily, or about 100m more e-mails than it actually delivers.
The Cost of Enlargement
Spam has become more than a nuisance. It is also costly. As well as the storage, transmission and computing costs imposed on internet service providers (ISPs), there is the cost of the time which millions of people spend sifting through and deleting unwanted messages. Ferris Research, a consulting firm, estimates that spam will cost American organisations alone more than $10 billion this year in lost productivity and extra spending to combat it. World-wide costs are much larger.
So far every attempt to curb spam has also imposed costs, in terms of lost convenience or added expense, which most people are not yet willing to pay. If spam continues to grow at such a rapid pace, however, that could change.
Why has spam taken off? The answer seems to be a matter of simple economics. Sending an e-mail incurs no direct cost. Even the cost of sending bulk e-mails is so small that a response rate as low as one in 100,000 justifies many bulk mailings (senders of physical junk mail usually need a response rate of one in 100). E-mail addresses on CDs sell for about $5 per million, and spamming software can be downloaded free from the internet or purchased for just a few hundred dollars.
Spammers have used increasingly sophisticated techniques to get past software filters and to reach ever larger numbers of people. Some spam software scours the web, “scraping” anything that looks like an e-mail address from websites, news groups, chat rooms and subscriber lists. “Dictionary attacks” use software to generate huge lists of made-up e-mail addresses, mostly at big ISPs and web-based e-mail sites, and then spam them. Any message that does not bounce back as undeliverable has reached a real e-mail address.
Anti-spammers are pursuing both legal and technological remedies. So far, neither has done much to stem the rising tide. Anti-spam legislation of one sort or another has been enacted in 28 American states. Early in April two senators reintroduced anti-spam legislation that failed to pass Congress last year. The bill would impose criminal penalties on bulk e-mailers who disguise their identities or do not provide a genuine “unsubscribe” link to any message (many such links now merely invite more spam). The European Union has gone much further. Last July it passed a directive banning the sending of e-mail unless the recipient has specifically “opted in” to receive it. All EU countries have until October to pass national legislation implementing these severe new rules.
Despite all this legal effort, doubts remain about its effectiveness. Many spammers are difficult to locate and to prosecute. Many others run such small businesses that they are hardly worth suing. On the internet, they can easily operate across borders, making legal pursuit difficult or even impossible.
Moreover, the business community itself is divided about how restrictive laws should be. Large direct-marketing firms which also send unsolicited e-mails would like to see an end to mass mailings by pornographers and other unsavoury types, but are nervous about how far any anti-spam crackdown will go. They are appalled at the EU’s “opt-in” scheme, fearing that it will destroy a promising new marketing and advertising medium. Legitimate businesses will be damaged, they say, while those pushing bogus products will simply flout the law.
Others are trying to fight spammers with more sophisticated anti-spam filters. So far, most such filters are based on “black lists” of senders’ addresses to be blocked. Many of these run on the computers of ISPs or the main servers of corporate networks. But they fail to block many spammers, who can change their own addresses frequently, and they produce too many “false positives”, blocking genuine messages that the recipient wants.
The most reliable, though extreme, filtering approach is that offered by Microsoft’s Hotmail and other web-based e-mail services, which can be set to accept only e-mails from a specific “white list” of approved senders. But for most people this destroys one of the joys of e-mail—receiving unanticipated messages—and takes more time than they want to devote to managing their e-mail. One start-up, IronPort, is offering a system which employs a white-list of firms who post a financial bond guaranteeing good behaviour.
One new idea is “challenge and response” filters which bounce messages back to the sender, asking for a confirmation before accepting the message. Some spammers have already countered this ploy with auto-response software. Another new idea is software that statistically analyses the content of incoming e-mails to find spam, but this has yet to be widely tested and may also be vulnerable to counter-measures by spammers.
There probably is no single solution to spam. Both technology and new laws will be needed—although these might easily impose more costs than they remove. Or perhaps people will take a more active interest in managing their e-mail settings, or simply resign themselves to spending more time using the delete button.
(adapted from The Economist)