Spam is Different

August 2002

(I wrote this partly for computer people, to explain why spam doesn't have to be protected as free speech, and partly for direct marketers, a few of whom aren't yet quite clear about the difference between email and other forms of advertising.)

Catalog companies send catalogs to potential new customers. Spammers do the same thing with email. What's the difference? Why is it ok to send unsolicited catalogs, and not ok to send unsolicited emails?

Some people say the difference with spam is that the cost of email is shared between the sender and the recipient. The problem with spam, this argument goes, is that it's like sending a letter postage due.

I don't think this is the real problem. If spammers did reimburse you the cost of the resources they used, would spam stop bothering you?

I think the reason spam is unethical is that it disrupts your life. There are many different ways of reaching you with a message, from printing it on a billboard you might see, to calling you on the phone. Email is among the most intrusive, perhaps second only to telemarketing. The problem is, email is also very cheap. So it's not only more intrusive than getting a catalog in the mail, but you also tend to get far more of it.

A lot of us depend on email now, and spam is a source of constant, annoying interruptions:

    1. Catalogs are so expensive to print and mail that catalog companies don't send them indiscriminately. Spam is so cheap to send that there is pretty much no limit on the amount of it that you could get.

    2. Catalogs sit in a heap of the day's mail till you go and sort through it. Spam arrives as an interruption, mixed in with your ongoing conversations, at random times all through the day. If you depend on email for your work, spam interrupts your work.

    3. Catalogs are often pleasing-- carefully designed, expensively produced, often full of things you covet. Spams are cheap, sleazy messages offering things that you not only don't want, but often would prefer not to know existed.
Some forms of direct marketing are bearable or even pleasing, and are allowed to continue. Others, like junk faxes or telemarketing with recorded messages, cause such inconvenience to the recipient that they end up being banned.

Whatever the spammers may say about their free speech rights, free speech has always taken a back seat to freedom from unreasonable annoyance. Free speech doesn't give you the right to follow someone around, shouting at them. When it inconveniences people beyond a certain point, speech is no longer protected.

So if you are bothered by spam, you don't have to go looking for an economic argument to explain why it's wrong. The fact that it disrupts your life is enough. I know people who get hundreds of spams per day. At that point, without some kind of filtering software, email becomes practically unusable.

I predict that as the volume of spam grows, there will be increasing legal and moral strictures against it. Already I think that most legitimate direct marketers realize that there is a difference between sending catalogs to potential new customers, and sending email.

There is a class of spammers, running what they call "opt-in" lists, who will try to convince you otherwise. They claim that they only send email to people who have asked to receive it. In fact, few to none of the people on their lists have consciously asked to receive spam. More likely, they imprudently typed their address into some Web site (perhaps to register for a contest or to send someone an electronic greeting card) without reading the fine print saying that their email address would be used by spammers. Others may have had their address typed in for them by "affiliates" of the list manager, whose official story is that they are unaware that this takes place.

Opt-in spammers will claim that their lists must be clean, because the mail they send gives the recipient a way to "unsubscribe". (I put that in quotes because the odds are the recipient never did knowingly subscribe.) They must want to get this email if they don't unsubscribe, right?

Well, no: the standard advice about how to deal with spam is never to click on unsubscribe links, because that tells the more unscrupulous spammers that you are a live target who actually read the mail, and you'll just get more spam than ever. Naturally, the opt-in spammers know this. They know they can count on the recipients not actually asking to be taken off their lists. If they did, then (without replenishment from whatever dubious sources) their lists would shrink down to nothing overnight.

I can't imagine any external source of email addresses that it would be ethical to send unsolicited email to. All along the spectrum of spammers, from the true bottom-feeders who hijack open relays to send porn spams, to the so-called "opt-in" list managers, unsolicited email is unwelcome to nearly all its recipients-- at best an annoying interruption, and at worst a blight that makes email unusable.

One more thought experiment. Suppose instead of getting a couple print catalogs a day, you got a hundred. Suppose that they were handed to you in person by couriers who arrived at random times all through the day. And finally suppose they were all just ugly photocopied sheets advertising pornography, diet drugs, and mortgages.

If this was how print catalogs worked, they'd probably already be illegal by now. What saves print catalogs, ironically, is their own cost. There are plenty of companies that would send a courier to interrupt you with an offer to refinance your mortgage if they could afford to (the same ones that now send you spam), but the response rate wouldn't justify the cost.

Ultimately, it's the low cost of spam that's the root of the problem. While it's annoying to get a spam, the real problem is that you don't get just one, but hundreds or thousands. Being stung by a bee is painful, but being stung by a swarm of bees is a problem of a different magnitude. And, like bees, spam intrinsically comes in large quantities.

That's the main reason it's unethical (and will one day I hope be illegal) to send unsolicited mass email. Like telemarketing with recorded messages, it's so cheap that if one company can do it, ten thousand can, and email just stops working.


Raph Levien Re: Spam is Different

Relative Cost of Spam

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