October 22, 2003

Spam: How it is hurting email and degrading life on the Internet

Part 5. How Email Users Feel About Spam

Most email users find spam annoying, but do not consider it a big problem.

When asked how spam affects life on the Internet, the majority of emailers (59%) describe spam as “annoying, but not a big problem.” On one extreme, 27% of email users say spam is a “big problem” for them, and on the other extreme, 14% say it is “no problem at all.” Some 70% of email users agree that spam has made being online “unpleasant or annoying,” with almost half of those saying it has had a big effect in this regard. Compared to other annoyances, spam ranks right up there with telemarketing calls and pop-up ads; about 40% of Internet users find them all a “very big intrusion on life.” We also found spam is deemed much more intrusive than public cell phone use, door-to-door solicitations, and junk mail delivered by the postal service.

Almost every aspect of spam bothers email users.

What, in particular, annoys emailers about spam? Just about everything, it seems. At least 69% of email users are annoyed at each aspect of spam that we asked about, from the content of the messages to the time devoured by dealing with it, to its intrusive and uncontrollable nature and potential risks. When asked to prioritize the factors about spam that bother them most, more users identified the offensive or obscene content of spam (23%) than any other factor, exceeding spam’s uncontrollability (15%), its sometimes deceptive or dishonest content (7%) or the time it takes to deal with spam (6%).

Aspects of spam that bother emailers

Among the types of spam that are out there, users were most bothered by pornography (53%), followed by pitches for products and services (14%), and investment deals and financial offers (11%). They are much less bothered by political messages (4%), religious information (3%), and software offers (2%).

Spam leads to a deeper destruction. It is threatening the bedrock quality of email — users’ trust in the integrity of the system.

We were surprised at the extent that our data reflects FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle’s concern that spam is “about to kill the ‘killer app’” — email. While we feel “kill” is too strong an interpretation here, “injure” or “maim” is appropriate. Our findings suggest that spam is eating into issues of trust and integrity that are necessary for a viable, healthy email system.

Half of all emailers (52%) say spam has made them less trusting of email in general, including more than a quarter who say it has had a big effect on them in this regard. For many, this loss of trust translates into a factor of reliability, a key element in any communications system. (Even more — 70% — say spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying.)

There are two agents of blame. One is the filtering software: Some 30% of emailers fear that filtering software may filter out important, desired incoming mail, and 13% say they know this has happened to them. About 23% say they fear their outgoing emails may be blocked by the intended recipients’ filtering software.

The other agent of blame is the user himself. Spam poses an encumbrance that makes many lose trust in their own handling of email. Some 46% of emailers say that spam has made being online more complicated for them (taking the ease out of a technology that promised to make communicating simpler and less time consuming!). A full 29% say they are concerned they might accidentally delete an important email, mistaking it for spam.

The extent of the damage from spam is measurable. One-quarter of emailers say spam has reduced their overall use of email, for most of them in a big way.

Some of the damage likely comes from emailers just being overwhelmed and throwing in the towel, an expression reflected by a number of respondents from the TRAC survey:

  • “Spam has 100% shut me and my family down. We can no longer deal with downloading 1 hour’s worth of spam and viruses to get a message or two that we are expecting.”
  • “My time is valuable and I do not have time to filter thru all this unwanted spam. So half the time I just hit select all and delete every email I get. I have gone so far as to tell everyone not to bother emailing me…I have gone back to using the phone and no longer email anyone.”
  • “What started out as a wonderful way to stay in touch with my sister on a daily basis (and support her during her husband’s illness and death) has become a nightmare because of spam! I just arrived home from a one-week vacation to find 1188 messages on my email! I used to look forward to my email, but now I dread opening it as it is so much work because of spam. I get so frustrated I want to cry…”

But some of the damage surely links to the erosion of trust in email expressed by more than half of emailers.

There is a special place in Hell for pornographic spam.

Throughout this study, email users’ reactions to spam containing adult content and pornography have stood out. When asked to identify the type of content that bothers users most, once again pornography exceeds all others, by nearly four times more than any runner-up.

People, and especially women and parents, hate it. We found three different measures of this strong feeling. While three-quarters of all email users are bothered by the offensive and obscene content of spam, women are significantly more bothered than men (83% v 68%) and parents are more bothered than non-parents (81% v. 72%). While 23% of users identify offensive or obscene content of spam as the single most bothersome characteristic of spam, women do so more often than men (29% v. 16%) and parents are much more likely to cite their objections to porn spam as non-parents (30% v. 17%). And finally, among all types of spam, users overwhelmingly identify pornography as the worst offender. Women are more likely than men to say this is the case (63% v. 42%), and parents are more likely to say this than non-parents (59% v. 49%).

Emailers speak for themselves about pornography better than any numbers can. Here are some of the many hundreds of examples in the TRAC survey:

  • “Imagine the horror of being forced to sign up for numerous accounts in order to complete research directly related to my job, only to be sent unwanted spam relating to such topics as breast augmentation and increasing sexual stamina.. Of course, my employer has strict rules against inappropriate emails, etc. I immediately addressed the problem with our IT department, and they have informed me that there is nothing they can do.”
  • “Spam has totally affected my household. My children are limited in their use of the computer due to spam. I cannot open my mail when they are even in the room! The computer has gone from a useful tool for homework and interacting with long-distance family members to a major focus of anger. The adults are upset that there is no way to set up a friendly email for our children without added expense and the children are fighting over the limited time the adults have to monitor the computer usage.”
  • “The pornographic images that appear on our computer haunt me. They are images that are not easily forgotten. They are images I have never solicited….”
  • “My boss sits right next to me three days a week and I take dictation from him, typing right into my computer. He is a very religious man. I check my (email) while he is on the telephone. I cannot tell you how many times I have to quickly delete messages even I am embarrassed to read, let alone have my boss see.”
  • “I have to use the library’s computer to go online and have to be very careful with what I open. I have somehow ended up on a spam list and receive a lot of emails which contain adult photos…If someone else is offended by this junk and complains about me, I could get in a lot of trouble and possibly lose my rights here at the library.”
  • “In my spare time, I counsel men who have become addicted to porn and want to be free. Years ago I struggled with this problem myself and am fully aware of what this type of unsolicited garbage is capable of doing to someone on the road to recovery. It is tantamount to offering free liquor to a newly recovering alcoholic.”
  • “An X-rated spam was sent to my office. I opened it while my boss was walking by and he fired me. I ended up getting my job back after much explanation and proof….”
  • “A very real problem for myself and for several friends who do day care & deal with children is the porn spam. They not only end up in the inbox of the computer with bad language & pictures, but they …also embed pictures. I have found child porn pictures that were extremely explicit.”
  • “I have been getting unsolicited pornographic emails that are totally offensive. I feel violated and powerless in that there is no way to stop them from coming through to my email.”
  • “I honestly do not know how to deal with the spam epidemic. My strangest story is a porn message that somehow installed a program on my home computer that flashed salacious photos, unbidden, whenever I logged on. It got to the point where I had to turn off my monitor whenever anyone came into the room because I never knew when the program would display another photo!”
  • ”You have no idea of how embarrassing it is for a priest to go ‘online’ to check his email…especially with others around…and find a barrage of pornographic messages on his computer. This happens to me all the time.”
  • “I am a grade 8 homeroom teacher. About midway through last school year, I started receiving an ever-increasing flow of spam — some of it absolutely inappropriate for a school environment. . I’m receiving from 5 – 10 obscene spams each day, and I have to shoo my students away from my desk every time I check my email – which is frequently. Thus, my students are losing out from what used to be ‘quality time’ around my desk.”
  • “My 12-year-old has his own email address — but I monitor his email before he gets it to make sure I get rid of all the trash. It is absolutely horrible. Email could be such as asset – but instead it has become a cesspool.”
  • “I received an email to my Internet email address with an innocuous subject ‘Plans Friday?’ and the name of a friend as the sender. I opened this email at my office and discovered a photo that was 1) offensive to me and 2) offensive to the woman walking past my cubicle. She reported me to my supervisor and I was given a sanction for violating anti-porn regulations. One more sanction and I’m fired.”
  • “Once one of my children inadvertently clicked on a ‘porn’ spam message and later that month I ended up with a $1000 phone bill from the Bahamas!”
  • “Every day I receive spam emails with subject headings that indicated the contents concern bestiality, incest, and other horrific matter…My 72-year-old mother-in-law receives similar spam with subject lines that would have made Caligula’s hair stand on end.”

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 17% of adult content contain auto-downloaded images.