Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, July 31, 2003
# 7:45:00 PM:

Why legal spam would still be a problem

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David Pogue of the New York Times identifies this week why proposals by direct marketing associations to permit unsolicited commercial e-mail messages (what most of us call spam)—but only when they don't have forged return addresses and actually allow you to opt out of mailings—still won't work (free registration required). He writes:

[Bob Wientzen, chief executive of the U.S. Direct Marketing Association] had actually budged my thinking. Maybe his system would work. I could live, I thought, with one—only one—unsolicited message from a company, if it had a legitimate return address and a foolproof opt-out link.

But the next day, I read an article in an MIT journal that pointed out that there are 24 million small businesses in the United States. If only 1 percent of them send you only one e-mail message each year, you'll be deleting, and opting out of, 662 little apple bites a day.

Unlike unsolicited telephone calls and postal mail—which many people also find annoying—e-mail is ridiculously cheap to send, and the more you send the cheaper it gets, until the unit cost of e-mailing millions of people is close to zero. But the costs of dealing with incoming spam don't scale so neatly. So, if they can, many marketers will send unsolicited e-mails to as many addresses as possible, regardless of the response rate, while the people at the other end of the firehose—ISPs, e-mail providers, receiving companies, and individual e-mail users—pay the costs in wasted time, effort, and computer resources.

The same is not true of more traditional marketing messages. That's why spam is growing at such an alarming rate, and why, even when it is not misleading, offensive, or fraudulent, it's so annoying.

I also have to wonder: since e-mail doesn't care about national boundaries, how many small businesses are there worldwide?


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