Ban spam? thank you ma’am

It is estimated that spam makes up 80 per cent of all e-mail traffic. Marketers are taking the blame for these messages, but government help is the best way to combat this problem, says Martin Croft

Last July, delegates from 60 countries attending a conference organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) were warned that the end of the world was nigh – or at least, the end of the wired world. Dr Robert Horton, acting chair of the Australian Communications Authority and the chairman of the ITU-sponsored meeting, said: “We are facing a global epidemic that can only be combated through a global and concerted action. What is at stake is no less than the protection and preservation of the internet as we know it.”

And the name of this global epidemic? Spam: the junk e-mail we find clogging up our inboxes every morning, trying to sell us everything from sex aids to hair-restorer. Few would deny it is annoying, but is it really a threat to world stability?

Apparently not, but only if the right action is taken swiftly enough. Dr Horton continued: “Spam has grown into a major plague affecting the digital world. I am convinced that we can curb spam within the next two years if we act on a number of fronts simultaneously and make sure that there are no havens for spammers anywhere in the world.”

Spam hitters

National, regional and global governments and organisations have been signing up to the alliance against spam (see box), but if a recent international consumer poll is anything to go by, it’s not the spammers who should be quivering in fear – it’s the marketers.

Global market research company GMI recently conducted a poll of consumers in 20 countries. The majority of the world’s online consumers say they are receiving more spam now than they did a year ago – and when asked who they think is to blame for the increase of junk e-mail, the majority of people – 57 per cent – said the marketing and advertising industries are the prime culprits. Second in line for blame are the internet service providers (ISPs).

Of the 20,000 online consumers surveyed by GMIPoll, 65 per cent reported that they are receiving more spam than they did 12 months ago. In China, Denmark, India, Poland, Russia and the US, financial spam was the top offender. In the UK, the majority of spam, 34 per cent, was financial, followed by sexually offensive mail at 29 per cent, with scam e-mails accounting for 24 per cent of spam.

But while consumers have clearly noticed the rise in spam, only 11 per cent of those polled said that it has a major impact on the way they use the internet. Nonetheless, online consumers are more cautious. When questioned about the effect of spam on their internet usage, 69 per cent of respondents said that they now only open mail from people they know. Almost one in every five users said they shopped less online because of spam and internet-based scams. This rose to one in every four in the UK.

GMI director for Europe Greg Ward says: “Spam is a global problem which ISPs and the marketing industry have been forced to address. It is surprising that despite their best efforts, the marketing industry is held responsible for this problem remaining out of control. If electronic communications are to play a positive role it is important that industry practices continue to be improved globally.”

Ashley Friedlein, chief executive of online publisher and research company E-consultancy, says: “Spam and pfishing are problems, and the efforts made to curb them have so far failed. It’s not helping consumers’ perception of e-mail marketing.” However, Friedlein adds: “It’s not something brands can solve. It needs to be tackled by ISPs and at government level. All marketers can do is make sure they follow the letter of the law and best practice.”

Don’t wear it out

So are marketers in danger of having one of their most effective communications tools taken away from them? Leading e-mail marketing experts believe they are not, but only if marketers act sensibly and, to borrow Google’s guiding slogan, “do no evil”.

Many pundits agree that the e-mail marketing industry today is in a very similar position to the direct mail industry a decade ago. Back then, junk mail was the threat, and consumers were demanding that the tide of unsolicited mailings must be stopped. And this was largely successful. The direct-mail industry today is arguably healthier than ever.

The solution was to stop mass-mailing communications that were irrelevant to the vast majority of recipients, and start sending smaller numbers of better-targeted offers. The total number of pieces of direct mail has risen steadily, but because it is now (usually) relevant and sometimes even useful, consumers complain less.

Andrew Burford, Europe, Middle East and Africa vice-president of e-mail services provider (ESP) Responsys, says: “The number of e-mail campaigns our clients are doing is definitely going up, but the number of people being © mailed each time is going down because of better targeting.”

If marketers can come up with relevant mailings, then consumers are happy to let them through their filters – because they don’t see them as spam. Burford says research suggests that on average, people allow e-mail marketing messages from about 20 trusted sources into their inboxes.

The UK already has stringent legislation in place regarding how marketers can collect e-mail addresses. For direct mail and telemarketing, consumers must actively state that they do not wish to receive marketing messages. Should they fail to do so, they are fair game for marketers. However, with e-mail the reverse is true. Consumers must actively state at the time their data is being captured that they are prepared to accept e-mail marketing messages, and only then can marketers target them.

Euro sceptics

But even if marketers do get consumers to agree to receive e-mails from them, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily get delivered. Increasingly, ISPs and the software houses that write e-mail programs are putting in roadblocks that can stop e-mail altogether unless it comes from trusted sources. At one point, as E-consultancy’s Friedlein points out, one of the largest ISPs in the US decided to block all e-mail originating from Europe, “which is ironic, as so much spam comes from the US”.

There are proposals from some sources – notably US politicians and civil liberties activists – that cookies (programs that reside on consumers’ computers and keep records of the sites they visit and what they do on them) and other techniques used to track consumers’ online activities should be banned.

The latest version of Microsoft’s Outlook program is just one of many e-mail packages that has started to suppress images in e-mails, unless users specify otherwise. This is because e-mail marketing companies include a tiny “picture” – often only one pixel, or dot on the screen – which users never see but which, when downloaded, registering the fact that the message has been seen.

If marketers can no longer see that e-mails have been opened, then that could affect the ability to properly calculate return on investment. OgilvyOne director Grant Jenkins believes it could have other effects. He says: “The blocking of images will prevent e-mail marketing from being as effective a form of communication as it has been to date. However, the biggest impact could come from the drop-off in click-through rates – e-mails without images could be unintelligible.”

Some of the companies responsible for advising brands on e-mail marketing have already begun to address the problem. ESP CheetahMail UK chief executive Denis Sheehan says: “Big ISPs are becoming very picky about what e-mails they will allow through.” Because of this, CheetahMail has systems in place that allow it to provide ISPs with a full breakdown of the mailings it is sending through them on behalf of marketers.

CheetahMail UK’s US parent company is talking with the big ISPs and representatives of the US government about the creation of a “trusted sender” system, where e-mail from recognised sources would always get through the ISPs’ barriers.

Criminal masterminds

The problem is, as Sheehan admits, that spammers are never going to sign up to any such system. As for the roadblocks which the ISPs are putting up to stop spam, he says, “spammers are employing some very clever people, and you have to remember it’s a very lucrative market.”

The consensus among ESPs and agencies is that the legitimate marketing industry must fight to make sure that its voice is heard by ISPs, governments and international organisations – otherwise, it could find that legitimate e-mail marketing is consigned to the waste bin of history, alongside spam. v

Government action

The war against spam is getting more aggressive by the day. But then spam, according to the ITU, makes up 80 per cent of all e-mail traffic and costs the global economy $25bn (£14bn) annually. Although almost 40 countries have enacted anti-spam laws, and ISPs, the companies that write e-mail software packages, and global corporations have all taken steps to stem the tide, experts believe that spammers are still sending billions of messages every day.

And those messages are no longer just irritating though relatively harmless ads: spam has become an integral part of large-scale fraud – so called “phishing” – sometimes in tandem with attempts to spread computer viruses and worms. Even criminal gangs and terrorist organisations have been using it.

The ITU points out that spam, and the criminals who use it, observe no national boundaries – hence international co-operation is urgently needed.

Last July, the UK, US and Australian governments signed an agreement to fight spam together. Their enforcement authorities will work together to trace and convict spammers. This February, representatives from 25 European and 13 Asian countries attended an Asia-Europe (ASEM) conference on e-commerce held in London, where they signed up to a joint drive to combat spam, both by passing internal legislation and by supporting international efforts. Two of the signatories were China and South Korea, which experts estimate are the sources of more than 20 per cent of global spam.

In April, the United Nations-sponsored Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) meeting in Geneva agreed that spam must be dealt with as a matter of priority.

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