Internet giants Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL should be held accountable for the decline of usability of email, the most basic communication tool on the internet. They all have email services that filter spam and send blacklist and sometimes whitelist messages to a junk or spam folder. This action is leading to a ballooning email spam epidemic with many faces.
That little junk folder is a huge problem. It does nothing to stem the tide of email being sent out everyday from these servers. Most of these junk email senders are set up to delete addresses that return undeliverable. With the folder, the spam goes directly to the folder, which means it was delivered. Since this email is not returned, the spammers feels it’s a legitimate email address and continue to send messages, even sharing the address with more of their “friends”.
This junk folder also forces the spammer to become more creative in sending emails. They know that if the email is caught by the spam filter, it gets a special escort directly to the junk bin, so they sneak around the filter and directly into your inbox to be viewed. Things like bogus text paragraphs, use of characters sets and misspelling are common tactics. This cat and mouse game between the spam filter suppliers and the spammers have left many legitimate users to find that normal, single destination email has not been delivered.
My emails to AOL and Sympatico (a large Canadian ISP) have been found in the junk mail folders of my friends. These emails were not spam, directed only to the recipient with no CC or BCC addresses included. In no way did they advertise enlargement, enhancement, quick wealth or any other common spam topic. I have never sent any spam from my domain to give it blacklist status. My daily email numbers very rarely exceed 50 messages and yet they cannot get through. Now friends must check in that “special” folder for emails that have been caught by these filters. If they don’t check it in a timely manner, most in 30 days, the email is automatically deleted with no notification to the sender. If someone has to go into that folder, the spammer has won, because the user must scan every subject line to pick out the legitimate emails. Now the junk folder has lost all of it’s benefit. I know I would rather delete the spam as I see it than wade through a month’s worth at a time.
I understand that an ISP is strictly against sending a message back to the spammer about the email address. Not only does it double the spam traffic but it gives the spammer concrete proof that the email is valid. These points far outweigh the legitimate user’s need to be notified that their email did not get to the recipient, however something has to be done. These emails represent personal and business relationships that are important to the sender. Many studies have pointed to the amount of time wasted by spam. I wonder if anyone has thought to look at the relationships that have been damaged due to the junk folder.
The rules for bulk email that have been legislated by the US congress are being largely ignored. Most spam now doesn’t even include an unsubscribe address. Even when you try to unsubscribe, it does not work. It’s just more concrete proof that the email address is valid. Leaving this issue for the user to solve is no longer even a valid option.
The amount of bandwidth the spammers use must be reclaimed. As more and more services get added to the internet, bandwidth is getting squeezed. Mark Cuban talks about this in regards to video download traffic, but the essence is the same. We can’t have “little Johnny down the road trying to download the entire NBC schedule” while services like medical diagnostics get degraded. Verizon has pointed to Google, among others, over the “free lunch” usage of what they call their network. I see that point as ridiculous because Google is not delivering any content that the user is not requesting. I see spammers having a “free lunch” because the other side of the bandwidth payment system, the user, does not want or need the service. In fact, it’s creating a hassle for the user. So maybe in the case of spammers, they are getting “paid to have lunch”.
Bill Gates was quoted on January 24, 2004 as saying “Spam will be a thing of the past in two years’ time” Well, 2 years have passed and none of the three tactics that he outlined are working. When problems like this are still happening after two years, I look for the money trail. Since mail servers run on old equipment and are not mission critical, it is not that big of concern for these companies. Sure it would be nice to recover the bandwidth, but that would amount to less that $ 50,000 a year for 99% of companies. That savings would not even allow you to pay one person, let alone a team of engineers or Phd’s.
Instead of solving this problem, Yahoo and AOL have enlisted a company, Goodmail Systems, to ensure that spam gets through to your inbox (for part of the revenue, of course.) In Goodmail’s defense, they enforce many rules and are aimed at opt-in mailing listings. Among many issues with this service which can be explored in this USA Today article , it does nothing to stop spam. In the end, it will deter small and medium size businesses from creating opt-in mailing lists due to cost and inconvenience. My worry is if Goodmail gains enough traction, every email from a sender not included in the users address book or whitelist, will be sent to the junk folder. Now it makes it nearly impossible to use a basic internet tool that up until now we have all taken for granted.
If a company like Google keeps expanding and luring most of the industry’s best minds to the plex, who will solve the spam problem? The internet giants have a moral obligation to solve it. There may not be monetary reward but maybe one of these execs will take action when a loved one cannot be diagnosed online because we have gridlock on our information highway.
Google’s motto is “Don’t be Evil”. I challenge the internet giants to take that one step further, and “Do the Most Good”.
Mike is the CEO and CTO of Acorg Inc, a startup company focussing on the local search marketplace. Mike has been following the search industry for nearly 10 years. He has worked in the computer operations department of two large Canadian companies. With solid skills in UNIX, scripting languages, Perl and relational databases coupled with small business management experience, Mike has a unique perspective on Internet business.