October 22, 2003

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

Part 8. The Implications of These Findings

What the survey means to policy makers.

We would like to reiterate a few findings in this Internet user survey that directly speak to some of the issues that legislators, regulators, and technologists are tackling in their fight against spam. As these findings particularly stand out with users, we feel that acknowledging them may help build realistic, relevant, and effective solutions to the problem of spam.

The odious impact of porn

In nearly every measure we tested, pornography soared to the top as the most offensive, objectionable, destructive type of spam. Among TRAC’s collection of personal anecdotes about spam, pornographic email was the most frequent and most vilified type of spam addressed. (Many went on to condemn pornography in pop-ups as well as in unsolicited email.) Some noteworthy particulars: Internet users deplore that pornography is so uncontrollable, imposing itself unannounced and explicitly. Women and parents particularly hate pornography. Porn degrades the Internet experience on a very personal level and even makes many Internet users miserable.

So extreme was the reaction to pornography that eliminating it alone among all unsolicited email would go a long way toward softening spam’s negative impact on Internet users.

The importance of keeping it simple

Throughout this study, we were struck by Internet users’ behavior to go for the simplest, most obvious solutions in their own confrontations with spam. In identifying spam, they looked at the subject and sender lines. In dealing with spam, they clicked “delete.” In trying to avoid spam, they would do less rather than more on the Internet. In commentaries about directly confronting spam, it was only the most technologically savvy and bold who would go to any lengths to take advantage of the sophisticated filters available to divert their spam, and even then, many wondered if the time spent on holding spam at bay might be equally well spent by just deleting it.

This points to a potential chasm between the solutions of the well-versed officials and highly experienced technologists, and the behavior of the average emailers, who are after all just trying to do their email. It suggests that the best solutions will be simple solutions that Internet users can and will employ.

How users would repair the damage

Time and time again in our surveys and reports on the Internet, we have found that trust is the backbone to making the most of the Internet. In largest numbers, Internet users look to Web sites they can trust. Web sites look for ways of conveying trust. Consumers have to trust transactions done on the Web. In the case at hand, emailers need to trust that their email is legitimate and that it is reliably delivered or received. We have seen evidence in this survey that there is an erosion of trust in email. Over half of respondents say they are now less trusting of email in general.

Trust, of course, is difficult to build and excruciatingly easy to destroy. One small but important illustration of this with respect to spam is the case involving the “remove me” option in unsolicited email. Clicking to “remove me” from future mailings from a sender could, in fact, be an effective way of getting yourself off a sender’s list. Most Internet users have trustingly tried this. Many have been burned, suspecting it just confirms their existence as an emailer and attracts more spam to their email account. No one can definitively say what clicking that button really means. The “remove me” function is now confusing and untrustworthy.

Another illustration of the loss of trust in email is that a good portion of users now worry that their email, either coming or going, will get caught up in spam filters or just simply lost in the morass of spam.

So, addressing the problems with spam by technology or legislation is just the beginning of an effective solution. Not only must engineers provide technically sound systems that are easy to use, and not only must legislators and regulators provide well-crafted, airtight laws and regulations that are enforceable, but they both have to convince the Internet users that these solutions will work, will be reliable, and can be trusted.

Internet users, we have seen, want to do the right thing with respect to spam. Repairing the damage from spam should take advantage of this eagerness by making clear to Internet users how they can and should interact with spam.