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Commentary: Taking care of spam

There's a fine line between Internet marketing and spam, and efforts are under way to create consequences for wrongdoing.

Joyce Graff, Gartner analyst

There's a fine line between Internet marketing and spam. Candidate Bill Jones made some innocent but very important mistakes, and he will pay for them--receiving much anger from outraged recipients in the short run and a lot of ribbing in the press for a long time to come.

See news story:
Free speech or campaign spam?
Jones' first mistake was the marketing vendor he chose for his e-mail campaign. He intended to e-mail Californians who expressed interest in politics. However, the vendor sent the e-mail to an unqualified list that included out-of-state and overseas e-mail addresses.

Furthermore, the vendor had the message sent by an overseas source--a common practice among spam senders that produces spam-like headers. For example, if the message was sent from Korea, the header might be: "From Bill Jones in California, posted from abc123xyz@somedomain.kr." That kind of header will set the warning lights flashing on any anti-spam engine. Many recipients may have been blocked from receiving the message at all.

Jones' next mistake was thinking that his e-mail campaign effort didn't result in spam because the messages weren't commercial. The e-mail may not have been spam according to California law, which defines spam as unsolicited commercial e-mail, but in the eyes of many recipients, it was. Recipients didn't ask for the mail, they didn't know the sender and, in many cases, the communicated information wasn't even applicable to them because they couldn't vote in California.

Gartner divides spam into four categories. The first two are the following:

• Pure trash. This entails senders with fictitious names offering morally objectionable materials, get-rich-quick schemes, advice on improving your love life or resizing portions of your anatomy.

• Chain letters, hoaxes and urban legends. These are the heartwarming or tear-jerking messages that beg you or try to shame you into forwarding them to 50 of your closest friends. They are sent from people you know, but they originate as someone's idea of a joke.

Internet "petitions" fall into this second category. An Internet petition bears absolutely no weight. Even if it arrives where it is intended, the signatures are repetitious and unverified. Anyone could have typed them in from a telephone directory or made them up.

These two categories raise the most anger among recipients because the messages use large amounts of bandwidth, disk space and, most importantly, people's time. These are the e-mails that people want Internet service providers or enterprise information-technology staff to block.

The two other categories of spam are less of a problem:

• Honest companies trying to do business. Companies such as Sears Roebuck, JCPenney, Amazon.com and other legitimate companies send out legitimate offers. The recipient probably signed up for promotional communications at one time--maybe indirectly (that is, by registering for a contest and not reading all the fine print). If it's an honest business, it probably provides a way to unsubscribe from its mailing list--a way that actually works. These companies don't want to make people angry; they want the business.

• Occupational spam. This can include interoffice messages that have extremely large distribution lists and do not directly relate to the recipients' job duties. It's tempting to request being taken off these lists, but sometimes it's politically incorrect to do so. In the end, recipients know where the delete key is and they put it to good use. Or they create personal folders outside their inbox and automatically channel the messages there.

The crux of the matter is that it's hard to tell the "good guys" from the "bad guys." Often, their messages look deceptively similar. For example, a spam sender might work hard to fool recipients into sending back $19.95. If 10,000 messages are mailed and the sender can get even one-half of 1 percent of the recipients to comply, that's not a bad day's work.

Efforts are under way to create consequences for wrongdoing (in the form of laws in California and a dozen other states). There are also efforts to enable recipients to verify whether e-mail is sent from an ethical source--such as certification initiatives from nonprofit organizations like Truste and the American Marketing Association.

For a high-volume, ethical sender, adding a "seal of approval" is inexpensive. However, it may be costly for spam senders because they often operate on a low budget.

(For a related commentary on efforts to reduce spam, see gartner.com.)

Entire contents, Copyright © 2002 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.