The Harms of Spam

The Harms of Spam
Eric Goldman
Marquette University Law School

Note: My paper on this topic is available at

Problems Due to Spam

  • 90% find spam very or somewhat annoying (Source: Harris Poll Dec. 2003)
  • 60% of January 2004 email was spam (Source: Brightmail Jan. 2004)
  • Spam costs companies $20 billion worldwide, and costs are growing 100% per year (Source: Basex Dec. 2003)

What Makes Email Spam?

  • “Email users are not entirely clear on just what is spam” (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, Oct. 2003)
  • Adjectives describing spam: Automated, Bulk, Mass, High-volume, Untargeted, Unsolicited, Commercial, Objectionable, Unwanted, Irrelevant
  • Many recipients like relevant email, even if unsolicited
    • “7% of email users report that they have ordered a product or service that was offered in an unsolicited email” (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, Oct. 2003)
  • But irrelevant email is “spam”
  • How can we distinguish the two?
  • The answer: only recipients can determine if email is “spam” to them
    • Every statistic about spam is questionable
    • Any effort to regulate spam—legislative or technological—will block wanted emails and miss unwanted emails

What Makes Spam Special?

  • Recipients are less tolerant of irrelevant emails than irrelevant ads in other media
    • Every medium provides some recipients with irrelevant ads
    • Every medium requires recipients to sort content from ads and wanted ads from unwanted ads
    • Other media deliver irrelevant ads to our home
  • We are still trying to understand why spam earns special wrath
    • Until we do, laws protecting recipients from spam may not solve the problem

The Real Harms of Spam

  • False/deceptive emails
  • Emails infringing third party trademarks
  • Emails containing obscene/child pornographic content
  • Emails a service provider doesn’t want to carry
    • Especially when the provider is not getting paid to carry them
  • Service providers targeted by forged routing information