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Is 'spam' overflowing? just learn to live with it: delete, delete, delete is better than filtering a valid message.

It is perhaps the fastest-growing morning ritual in America: the daily spam dump.

You know the drill. Come to work, boot up the computer, check e-mail, and delete all the unsolicited commercial messages that arrived overnight bearing promises of fast weight loss, easy money, and enhanced sexual performance. You don't bother to open them anymore, not even those that plead for personal attention. ("Meet me for a drink?" or "Why don't you answer my e-mails?") You work the delete key like Van Cliburn attacking Tchaikovsky. Just be careful not to inadvertently kill an important note from a reader or a source--or your boss.

Same routine at home: E-mails from Mom or friends are jumbled together with pitches for cut-rate mortgages, ionic ozone air purifiers, and investment opportunities from the widow of the late President Mobutu SeseSeko of Zaire. Delete. Delete. Delete. And if you've got young children using the Internet--well, you don't need to take a peek to know that the message tiffed "Sex Toys Special Offer" is not for them.

Electronic mail, which just a few years ago seemed like such a fresh and exhilarating addition to the world of interpersonal communication, today has come to resemble the informational equivalent of a communal sewer: You never know what's going to drift by, and you probably don't want to.

One-third of e-mail users say they spend 30 to 60 minutes a day sorting through "spam" according to ePrivacy Group and the Ponemon Institute; another third waste 10 to 3o minutes on the task. Three of every four respondents to a Yahoo! online poll in August said it's less aggravating to clean a toilet than to muck around with "spam." Not exactly the fullest realization of the Internet's potential, is it?

And it's only going to get worse.

The typical e-mail account will receive 2,600 junk messages this year, Wired magazine predicts; "spam" will actually account for more than half of all e-mail traffic in the world by September 2004 and up to 70 percent by 2007. Picture it: two billion ads for debt relief and cheap herbal Viagra, clogging servers around the world every day.

Sure, there are ways that end users can cut down on "spam," or at least the lost productivity and aggravation it causes. Many Internet service providers have begun using blacklists to kill known "spam" before it ever reaches their customers' in-boxes; my personal ISP diverts more than 200 unwanted messages per week from my accounts this way.

Home "spam" filters, either stand-alone software or integrated with e-mail clients, do a fair job of screening out another chunk of the flow. But automated programs can't always tell the difference between junk e-mail and the real thing. My own home "spam" filter zaps six to 10 junk messages a day but even after a year of training still lets a few others through that I must delete manually.

More corporate IS managers, by contrast, have been reluctant to install any sort of "spam"-filtering software on their e-mail servers. Which explains why, on a typical Monday morning, I spend 10 minutes or more manually deleting the 200 to 300 pieces of spam that have flowed my way over the weekend.

Better that worthless exercise, though, than to lose legitimate messages to an overly enthusiastic "spam" filter. When The Columbian's computer center made a good-faith effort recently to crack down on the junk-mail flood, we lost dozens of letters to the editor as well as many of our e-mail-delivered editorial cartoons.

Anti-"spam" advocates suggest that e-mail users treat their addresses the way they would an unlisted telephone number, revealing it only to family and friends, and never posting it on an online bulletin board, chat room, or personal web page. Some "spam" filter programs have begun offering a "whitelist" option, which accepts messages only from a user-approved list of senders and relegates everything else to the electronic Dumpster.

Again, however, that approach simply isn't practical for journalists, public officials, or anyone else whose work requires that he or she be accessible to the public.

Nor is "spam" likely to be legislated away. Washington state was among the earliest to enact a law limiting unsolicited commercial e-mails and was first in the nation to win a monetary judgment against a spammer. More than two dozen other states have followed, and Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed creation of a federal no-"spam" registry similar to the new national no-call list for telemarketers.

But new laws haven't stanched the gush of "spam" and neither state nor federal statutes are enforceable outside the United States. If they have to, spammers--like porn site operators, purveyors of bootleg music and computer programs, and others on the margins of electronic commerce--will simply move their operations offshore.

So we'd better get used to "spam" Learn to tolerate if not actually embrace it; accept that distasteful morning ritual as a part of our lives in the new century. And if we really can't face up to it, the toilet could always use a good scrubbing.

Michael Zuzel is an editorial writer and columnist for The Columbian in Vancouver Washington. E-mail michael.zuzel@
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Title Annotation:Symposium: facing the challenges of an electronic age
Author:Zuzel, Miachael
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2003
Previous Article:Blocking software worked in Maine: after a record 320 emails, including eight actual letters, something had to change.
Next Article:Online learning holds promise.

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