Spam: A Reality Check

Recent developments lead to some startling conclusions about the state and future of spam.

The CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) act recently became law in the United States, and with just a little over a month of it under our belts, people are already passing judgment on this broad and, some might say, groundbreaking law.

On the surface, the verdict hasnt been positive. Im still flooded with spam, and in discussions with industry leaders (to say nothing of the news reports I read each day), the tide has yet to turn on this flood of unwanted e-mail. Im not surprised. When I learned about the proposed national law last year, I didnt see how it could address a global problem. And now some industry experts contend that CAN-SPAM is not just failing, its actually exacerbating the spam problem.

"Since January 1, we have seen no change in volume. In fact, spam has continued to rise," Susan Larson, Vice President of Global Content SurfControl (a corporate spam-management company), told me the other day. She adds, "One out of 20 spam e-mail were seeing... has new information added to appear legitimate."

The suggestion that a law designed to contain a problem could actually be helping it grow stunned me. Larson explained that there are a few critical pieces of the law—e-mail elements required to help people differentiate between legitimate and spam mail—that spammers are now manipulating to give their e-mails the illusion of legitimacy. One is the addition of an unsubscribe link; another is the inclusion of a snail-mail address. The third is the addition of nonpromotional content to switch the focus of the e-mail from trying to sell you something to, for instance, attempting to amuse you with, say, a silly fact of the day.