Spam Wars: Battling the Relentless Web Tide. (Media)

Article excerpt

As if generated by some cyber-sorcerer's apprentice, they seem more numerous each day. "After Christmas blowout sale--the tiniest remote control cars ever made!" "Make a fortune on eBay!" "Looking for more betting action?" "You too can name a star for someone very special to you!" They are tireless and insolent, these unsolicited commercial e-mails that blight the information age and have come to be know as spam.

Sometimes the appeals are humdrum ("Full-color business cards at no cost--don't miss out!"); sometimes they are pathetic ("Needed: Dogs and Cats for Movies! Do you think your pet has star potential?"). Sometimes they hint at a melodramatic backstory--the crime that led to the invitation to "Bid now on these seized goods!" But frequently it's better not to think too hard about the offer, as with the recent promo for that waterproof, vibrating personal massager in the form of a rubber duck ("Click here to see the video!"). Whatever the aesthetic overtones, spam inspires more rage in me than telemarketing calls. I can at least slam the phone down on callers, and hope I've hurt their feelings. Spam precludes retaliation--clicking on that "unsubscribe" link, I've been told, is likely to increase the flow of unsolicited messages.

At least I know that I am not alone. In mid-January, in fact, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a conference of hundreds of computer experts, all intent on waging war against spam. That war will only heat up in the future, if recent statistics are any indication. According to an alert issued a few weeks ago by the e-mail security firm Postini, which monitors about 40 million e-mails a day, the flood of spam surged by 150 percent in 2002; the increase, the firm warned, threatens the viability of e-mail as a form of communication. In other dismaying analyses, the antispam software maker Brightmail predicted that in 2003, 40 percent of e-mail will consist of spam, and a company called Ferris Research estimated that the problem now costs U.S. businesses about $9 billion a year.

That $9-billion figure takes into account variables like "consumption of bandwidth" and "loss of worker productivity" (the average worker, according to Ferris's analysts, wastes 4.5 seconds on each morsel of spam). What these figures do not measure or explain, of course, is the subjective dimension--the pent-up fury experienced by the helpless spam recipient. Even on my most efficient days, I can hardly argue that my workplace performance suffers noticeably from the squandering of 4.5 seconds here or there. And, given the product-hawking that barrages my every waking hour--ads on TV, on the sides of bus stops, etc.--a few unsought e-mails should hardly make me bat an eye.

So why is it more aggravating to click and trash three or four such messages than to sort through the day's U.S. Postal Service delivery and throw out an equivalent number of envelopes? Dealing with hard-copy junk mail takes longer, consumes real caloric energy, and frequently entails paper cuts. …