October 22, 2003

Spam is starting to hurt email

WASHINGTON (October 22, 2003) — The recent explosion of email spam is beginning to take its toll on the Internet world. A new nationwide survey shows that 25% of America’s email users say they are using email less because of spam. Within that group, most say that spam has reduced their overall use of email in a big way.

Further, more than half of email users say that spam has made them less trusting of email in general. One of their fears is that legitimate emails might be turned away by filters designed to stop spam. Another is that they’ll simply miss incoming email from friends, family, or colleagues amid the clutter of spam in their inboxes.

A new report entitled “Spam: Hurting email and degrading the Internet environment,” by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, includes scores of stories gathered in a Web-survey by the Washington-based Telecommunications Research & Action Center about how spam has affected people’s experience with email and changed their views about the value of email.

“People just love email, and it really bothers them that spam is ruining such a good thing,” said Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the report. “People resent spam’s intrusions; they are angered by its deceptions; and they are offended by much of the truly disgusting content.”

Here are some other key figures from a national phone survey of 1,380 Internet users conducted by the Pew Internet Project in June. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus three points:

  • 75% of email users are bothered that they can’t stop the flow of spam, no matter what they do.
  • 70% of email users say spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying.
  • 55% of email users say they get so many unwanted email messages in their personal account that it’s hard to get to the ones they want.
  • 30% of email users are concerned that their filtering devices may block incoming email that is important to them.

    Despite their dismay, most Internet users keep the issue of spam in perspective. For them, spam takes its place next to life’s other annoyances, like telemarketing calls. Further, many users believe they know how to behave in a spam-saturated environment. The most popular way of dealing with spam is to simply click “delete.” More than 2/3 have made a more aggressive move, clicking to “remove me” from future mailings, although many voice concern that doing so only leads to more spam.

    And most email users are judicious about guarding their email addresses in hopes of avoiding spam. A minority employ their own filters, either in work or personal accounts.

    At the same time, there is evidence in the survey that enough Americans respond to offers in unsolicited email to sustain spam as a viable, lucrative endeavor. Some 7% of emailers – more than eight million people – report they have ordered a product or service that was offered in an unsolicited email,. Fully a third of email users say they have clicked on a link in unsolicited commercial email to get more information.

    The report argues that Americans are somewhat fuzzy when it comes to defining spam, an issue of critical importance to legislators as they tackle anti-spam legislation in Congress. There is consensus that spam is “unsolicited commercial email from a sender you don’t know.” However, messages with religious, political, or charity fundraising content are spam to some users, but not others. And users have varying answers about how businesses should interpret their prior relationship with customers. There is not a clear consensus among users about the circumstances under which they are “known” by a seller or “have a relationship with” a firm.

    “The general findings are striking, but inside the data are even more disturbing details about the reactions women and parents have with pornographic spam,” said Fallows. “Pornographers deserve a special place in hell as far as they are concerned.”

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine the social impact of the Internet.

    The Telecommunications Research & Action Center (TRAC) is a nonprofit organization that promotes the interests of residential telecommunications customers. Their stories cited in the report come from a compilation of more than 4,000 first-person narratives about spam that were solicited since September of 2002. As part of a campaign to fight unsolicited commercial email, TRAC invited Internet users to submit stories about their personal experiences with spam.