My first experience of electronic mail and what it promised to be was in 1988, when I went with family to what was called the World Expo. This “expo” was a collection of displays and exhibitions from around the world that represented the culture of each nation, big and small. Aside from the fact that Australia’s representation therein should be considered embarrassing, the exhibition demonstrating what electronic mail was and how it was supposed to work proved interesting to say the least.
I make no bones about this. I am not the most techno-electronically inclined person. I am the creative type, through and through. Give me a tool that works, and I will use it to make you stories and images that will knock your socks off. But give me an operating system that will not even allow me to access my own preferences or install programs that I need, and just watch me through the computer you expect me to use out of the window.
But after the novelty of electronic mail wore off, one major, major problem with how it worked became apparent. Specifically, persons who saw it as a manner to advertise their product for free began streaming out of the woodwork like bullshit from a conservative. And in spite of the law having been amended in numerous countries to give people the right to sue if they are targetted for unsolicited commercial email, the value of email as an effective communications tool has pretty much been destroyed. When I say destroyed, I will have to do a comparison in order to convey my full meaning. In the late 1990s, checking one’s email once a day was commonplace. In fact, some like myself would just leave the email program open and download new mails as they arrived at the SMTP server. But nowadays, when I send an important communication to someone like the portion of my family I still speak to (or vice versa), I have to let them know I sent it by other means, because without doing so it could take days for them to even open the program and look, and in some cases that is days too long.
So what caused the destruction of email as a valuable communications tool? People will go on about “social networking” or such bullshit until they are blue in the face. But we had real-time chatting in the 1990s, too, guys. Just because it was real-time did not mean that the occasional email or three was unneeded. No. CAUCE.org had a good write-up of what the problem was, but sadly CAUCE.org seems to have become more and more toothless as time goes on. You can find a write-up of the problems associated with bulk unsolicited email here, although it is written in a tense that suggests that the problems listed are still merely problems as opposed to causes of death.
The site that best described what all of the problems were seems to have vanished off the Internet, in spite of how serious the problem was according to its description. So just for the sake of argument, I will tell you about a little analogy that was used to describe the problem on one such site. Before I was born, there was a comedy show on British television called Monty Python. Like a lot of comedy shows that followed during my lifetime, it was a show consisting of short sketches that were written and performed by a team of comedians. One of Monty Python’s most well-remembered sketches involved people within a group repeating the word “spam” over and over at a pace and volume that increased with each repetition until the actual conversations that the people around them were having were drowned out and impossible to continue. Whether the Monty Python team had any reason to choose the word “spam” for this sketch is something that has never been clarified, but it has been posted in multiple places that when the powers that be behind the curtain of the Internet were looking for a shorthand word to refer to the problem of unsolicited bulk email, that sketch came to mind.
What distressed me a lot when organisations like CAUCE.org and the like were trying to get the government to recognise that unsolicited commercial messaging by email was a legitimate problem and needed addressing was the lengths to which some would go to defend spam. I only wish I could say I am shitting you when one moron responded to my statements that spam adds to the cost of providing email services for Internet Service Providers with, and I quote, “spam makes your email cheaper”. How is that again? In order to demonstrate what folly this position truly is, it is important to understand that old Heinlein-ian statement, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In order to set up a legitimate business such as an Internet Service Provider, a person or group of persons have to make investments in acquiring the basic tools that allow them to do business. In legitimate business, this is called “the cost of doing business”. A spammer evades all but a miniscule fraction of the costs of doing their business. For no more than a few pieces of software and a couple of hours’ minimum wage in dial-up ISP fees, a spammer can literally send millions of messages to millions of addresses that he has collected by foul means. And frequently, all that a spammer has to get in terms of response to cover the cost of that is a couple of responses. According to more material that disappeared from the CAUBE website network, one former spammer fessed up and indicated to anti-spam campaigners that he could keep his business going with a response rate of one in a thousand. That is exactly one tenth of one percent. If a business in what I will call for now the real world for the sake of mocking the “everything must be online” culture got this kind of response rate for its advertisements, it would be out of business in a matter of days.
The truth of Heinlein‘s famous by-character quip is that if you are not paying for what you make use of (and this happens more than people want to think), someone else must be paying for it. That someone, in the case of spam, is the person who is receiving it. This makes the claim that spam makes your email cheaper ridiculous in itself. But the manner in which spam increases costs is worse than that. You see, all ISPs purchase the means by which they connect to the rest of the Internet in a volume commensurate with what they expect to use. Every bit of data that goes from the rest of the Internet to your ISP, regardless of who it is for, is paid for by your ISP. Because of the way email (and the Internet in general, sadly) is set up, ISPs have no means to distinguish between traffic that their user wants and traffic their user does not want. This, in the end, means that short of terminating service to known spammers and suing persistent spammers for the demonstrable costs said spammers have saddled them with, ISPs and end users have no real means of making the spammers stop. And tracking down spammers is one of those mystic arts that the “I’m so tech-literate” crowd consisting of fanatical Linux users and assholes (on rare occasions, the two do not overlap) keep to themselves. You would think they would be all about ridding the Internet of its biggest scourge, honestly. But the point here is that the line that spam makes email cheaper is a zillion pounds of bullshit stuffed into a one-gram bag.
A branch from the “makes email cheaper” tree is that spam is just like paper junk mail, and paper junk mail is not regulated, so spam should not be, either. This claim is transparently false. You see evidence of the falsehood every time you hit “send” in an email program or website. Look at what happens when you do this. Do you have to pay money for every time you hit send? Do you feel your wallet getting a teensy bit lighter every time you hit send? You do not. That, dear friends, is why the “paper junk mail and email are the same” gambit is a shit refinery. Paper junk mail has a per-unit cost. That is, every time an advertiser sends a piece of paper junk mail, it costs them money. That cost scales with volume, so the advertiser in question is forced to consider the return on their investment, and that results in a natural limit on how much paper junk mail gets sent out. Spammers have no incentive to make such considerations. As I have already explained, spammers do not need to spend any more money to send out a million spams than they do a thousand. And since they expect the ISP that they are abusing in order to send spam to terminate their service at some point, anyway, they have no reason to comply with any contract an ISP asks them to accept.
Hence, if spam was a legitimate method of advertising, the amount of spam that consumers can legitimately expect to receive would be for all purposes unlimited. And if you think that will not affect you because you do not use email at all, guess again. Every piece of data your ISP receives factors into your ISP fees. This makes spam like a tax, only instead of going to pay for legitimate services like police protection, schools, or public transport, that tax is basically going into the pockets of thieves. But to get back to the point, the reason a lot of morons think that spam makes email cheaper somehow (again, how the fukk does that work, you morons?) is because paper junk mail actually does subsidise the cost of paper mail. This is because the postal service shifts a portion of the costs involved in providing the service to the advertisers. In the case of spam, however, the advertiser is placing the entire burden of paying the costs of doing their business upon the consumer. No attempts to obfuscate the logistics of email or make false comparisons can disguise the fact that this is a form of theft.
Other defenders of spam have tried the First Amendment gambit. That is, they claim that spam is somehow protected by the First Amendment of the American constitution, which has been very loosely interpreted to prohibit both the censorship of legitimate communication and the co-mingling of churches with the state. Fortunately, the question of how the First Amendment and its equivalents in the legal systems of England and Australia soon put paid to this argument, too. A good analogy for this is to think of the derro you see on the corner of the street you care to name, wearing a tinfoil hat and declaring that the government is trying to steal his thoughts. The law says that so long as he does not hurt anyone, he has the right to put forth his message, silly as that message may be. But the law says nothing about him having the right to make people listen to him. In fact, if he forcibly attempts to make people listen by whatever means, that legitimates the exaggerated First Amendment arguer scenario response of the police coming to take this speaker away to where he cannot hurt anybody (or, just as likely, vice versa). In fact, this is one of the reasons why, in the destruction of email’s value as a communications tool, efforts both on the part of spammers and anti-spam educators have turned their efforts to the web. Websites are making money by selling portions of their space within layouts to advertisers. But the problem here is that websites are not adhering to anything that vaguely constitutes a standard of advertising. Fudgebook, my favourite place on the web < /sarcasm>, has even taken to shoving ads for Normies Shove Words In Autistic Mouths in my face. Given that no legitimate options exist in order to go elsewhere for Fudgebook’s services, and that Fudgebook disavows any responsibility for the content of these ads, well, I have just had another epiphany about the “everything must be online” culture.
When I was a child and television was the main medium by which I saw advertising, we heard much complaining about how the content on television was mindless shit. Indeed, the “everything must be online” crowd love to chant about how much more two-way and thus superior the net is. But I have some news for them.
At least television has a code of practice that governs the kinds of ads and programmes a television station can project at an audience, and the audience has avenues by which it can tell a station to stop airing Autism Speaks’ bullshit. “Everything must be online” deadheads, call me back when you can tell me that the Internet has something equivalent. Until then, fukk you and everything you are about.