Tennessee resident K. C. "Khan" Smith owes internet service provider EarthLink $24 million. According to CNN, last August he was slapped with a lawsuit accusing him of violating federal and state Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes, federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and numerous other state laws. On July 19 - having failed to appear in court - judge ruled against him. Mr. Smith is a spammer.
Brightmail, a vendor of e-mail filters and anti-spam applications warned that close to 5 million spam "attacks" or "bursts" occurred last month and that spam has mushroomed 450 percent since June last year. PC World concurs. Between one seventh and one half of all e-mail messages are spam - unsolicited and intrusive commercial ads, mostly concerned with sex, scams, get rich quick schemes, financial services and products, and health articles of dubious provenance. The messages are sent from spoofed or fake e-mail addresses. Some spammers hack into unsecured servers - mainly in China and Korea - to relay their missives anonymously.
Spam is an industry. Mass e-mailers maintain lists of e-mail addresses, often "harvested" by spamware bots - specialized computer applications - from Web sites. These lists are rented out or sold to marketers who use bulk mail services. They come cheap - c. $100 for 10 million addresses. Bulk mailers provide servers and bandwidth, charging c. $300 per million messages sent.
Jupiter Media Matrix predicted last year that number of spam messages annually received by a typical Internet user is bound to double to 1400 and spending on legitimate e-mail marketing will reach $9.4 billion by 2006 - compared to $1 billion in 2001. Forrester Research pegs number at $4.8 billion next year.
More than 2.3 billion spam messages are sent daily. eMarketer puts figures a lot lower at 76 billion messages this year. By 2006, daily spam output will soar to c. 15 billion missives, says Radicati Group. Jupiter projects a more modest 268 billion annual messages by 2005. An average communication costs spammer 0.00032 cents.
PC World quotes European Union as pegging bandwidth costs of spam worldwide at $8-10 billion annually. Other damages include server crashes, time spent purging unwanted messages, lower productivity, aggravation, and increased cost of Internet access.
Inevitably, spam industry gave rise to an anti-spam industry. According to a Radicati Group report titled "Anti-virus, anti-spam, and content filtering market trends 2002-2006", anti-spam revenues are projected to exceed $88 million this year - and more than double by 2006. List blockers, report and complaint generators, advocacy groups, registers of known spammers, and spam filters all proliferate. The Wall Street Journal reported in its June 25 issue about a resurgence of anti-spam startups financed by eager venture capital.
ISP's are bent on preventing abuse - reported by victims - by expunging accounts of spammers. But latter simply switch ISP's or sign on with free services like Hotmail and Yahoo! Barriers to entry are getting lower by day as costs of hardware, software, and communications plummet.
The use of e-mail and broadband connections by general population is spreading. Hundreds of thousands of technologically-savvy operators have joined market in last two years, as dotcom bubble burst. Still, Steve Linford of UK-based Spamhaus.org insists that most spam emanates from c. 80 large operators.
Now, according to Jupiter Media, ISP's and portals are poised to begin to charge advertisers in a tier-based system, replete with premium services. Writing back in 1998, Bill Gates described a solution also espoused by Esther Dyson, chair of Electronic Frontier Foundation:
"As I first described in my book 'The Road Ahead' in 1995, I expect that eventually you'll be paid to read unsolicited e-mail. You'll tell your e-mail program to discard all unsolicited messages that don't offer an amount of money that you'll choose. If you open a paid message and discover it's from a long-lost friend or somebody else who has a legitimate reason to contact you, you'll be able to cancel payment. Otherwise, you'll be paid for your time."
Subscribers may not be appreciative of joint ventures between gatekeepers and inbox clutterers. Moreover, dominant ISP's, such as AT&T and PSINet have recurrently been accused of knowingly collaborating with spammers. ISP's rely on data traffic that spam generates for their revenues in an ever-harsher business environment.
The Financial Times and others described how WorldCom refuses to ban sale of spamware over its network, claiming that it does not regulate content. When "pink" (the color of canned spam) contracts came to light, implicated ISP's blame whole affair on rogue employees.
PC World begs to differ:
"Ronnie Scelson, a self-described spammer who signed such a contract with PSInet, (says) that backbone providers are more than happy to do business with bulk e-mailers. 'I've signed up with biggest 50 carriers two or three times', says Scelson ... The Louisiana-based spammer claims to send 84 million commercial e-mail messages a day over his three 45-megabit-per-second DS3 circuits. 'If you were getting $40,000 a month for each circuit', Scelson asks, 'would you want to shut me down?'"