Negative Effects of Spamming

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One of the strengths of electronic communications media is that it costs virtually nothing to send a message. These media are not free of charge: setting up a cellular telephone network or an Internet e-mail service has substantial overhead costs in equipment and connectivity. However, once these costs are paid for, the cost to transmit a message to a single recipient is minuscule when compared with older media such as postal mail. Electronic messaging is cheap and fast. It is also easy to automate: computer programs can send out millions of messages via e-mail, instant message (IM), or Usenet netnews in minutes or hours at nearly no labor cost.

From these economic realities, a sort of tragedy of the commons emerges. Any communications mechanism which is cheap and easy to automate is easy to flood with bulk messages. To send instant messages to millions of users on most IM services, all one needs is a piece of scriptable software and those users' IM usernames. The ability to send e-mail from a computer program is built in to popular operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Unix -- the only added ingredient needed is the list of addresses to target.

Sending bulk messages in this fashion, to recipients who have not solicited them, has come to be known as spamming, and the messages themselves as spam. The etymology of the term is discussed below.

Spamming has been considered by various commercial, government, and independent entities to be one of the foremost social problems facing electronic media today. All manner of attempts have been made to curb this problem: technical measures such as e-mail filtering and the automated cancellation of netnews spam; contractual measures such as Internet Service Providers' acceptable-use policies; laws such as the Can Spam Act of 2003; and market pressures such as boycotts of those who use or support spam.

The costs of spam
Spam's direct effects include the consumption of computer and network resources, and the cost in human time and attention of dismissing unwanted messages. In addition, spam has costs stemming from the kinds of spam messages sent, from the ways spammers send them, and from the arms race between spammers and those who try to stop or control spam.

In part because of the bad reputation (and dubious legal status) which spamming carries, it is chiefly used to carry offers of an ill...

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... spam-blocking tools as a threat to free expression -- and laws against spamming as an untoward precedent for regulation or taxation of email and the Internet at large.

Two common refrains from spam-fighters address these concerns: First, spamming itself abridges the historical freedom of the Internet, by attempting to force users to carry the costs of material which they would not choose. Second, to treat spam as unlawful requires no new incursion of law into the online world, merely the application of existing laws against trespass and conversion.

An ongoing concern expressed by parties such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU has to do with so-called "stealth blocking", a term for ISPs employing aggressive spam blocking without their users' knowledge. These groups' concern is that ISPs or technicians seeking to reduce spam-related costs may select tools which (either through error or design) also block non-spam email from sites seen as "spam-friendly". SPEWS is a common target of these criticisms. Few object to the existence of these tools; it is their use in filtering the mail of users who are not informed of their use which draws fire.

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