Last week, the Federal Trade Commission held a three-day forum in Washington DC, bringing together experts, including PC Magazines Technical Director Matthew D. Sarrel, to discuss the issue of Internet spam. The trouble was that no one could agree on how to define spam. Some said it is any unsolicited bulk e-mail. Others said its only unsolicited bulk e-mail that includes false subject lines and misleading headers. Congress is considering two different bills to curb spam, but how can you stop spam until everyone decides what it is?
Coinciding with last weeks forum, SurfControl, the maker of an anti-spam tool we reviewed in our latest spam feature, released a new spam study. The paper included commissioned input from political and public affairs research firm Public Opinion Strategies and provided some insight into how the average American employee defines spam.
Of the 1,600 people who responded to the survey, 93 percent said that unsolicited mass e-mail that is deceptive in the subject line and hides the sender or seeks to commit fraud should be considered spam. Eighty-two percent said any other unsolicited mass e-mail was spam, even if it comes from legitimate or well-branded businesses. And 78 percent said that even mass e-mail on subjects or offers that seem interesting should be considered spam.
But, interestingly, 54 percent of the surveys respondents said that unsolicited bulk e-mail from companies theyve done business with in the past should not be considered spam. "This shows that, perhaps, users dont mind if the e-mail is truly targeted to them," says Susan Getgood, senior vice president of marketing at SurfControl. "They might make the assumption that, since theyve done business with a company in the past, what the e-mail says might be of interest to them."
Many people, it seems, would object to an outright ban on all unsolicited bulk e-mail. But, according to the survey, most would like to curb the sort of spam tricks that are so rampant nowadays. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they would support pending legislation to outlaw spam that contains misleading information regarding the identity of the sender and the content of the e-mail.
One thing is certain: Something needs to be done. The spam problem is getting worse. Anti-spam applications like SurfControls are doing some good. Survey respondents whose companies use some sort of anti-spam tool said they receive only 51 spam messages a week compared with 113 received by those with no protection. But on the whole, the amount of spam flooding the inboxes of respondents grew from an average of 56 to 71 messages a week in four months, an increase of 21 percent.