Spam Is What I Say Is Spam

from the defining-spam-is-half-the-problem dept

One of the (many) bad side effects of the CAN SPAM legislation is that it “defined” spam. The problem is that spam is very much in the eye of the beholder. Even someone at the FTC said (before CAN SPAM was signed into law) that spam is “anything I don’t like.” That still is how most people view it. If they don’t like the mail, it’s spam. That’s the common definition. Of course, the legal definition is quite different and that’s leading to all sorts of problems on all sides. For some reason, email marketers seem to think that people obviously must be okay with any emails that comply with CAN SPAM because legally they’re “not spam.” That, of course, is ridiculous — since, if people don’t want it, they don’t want it, no matter how legal the email is. That’s why we get silly lawsuits from spammers, saying people can’t filter out their spam. It’s also why a politician who claims he’s tough on spammers doesn’t understand why people are so upset that he spammed voters himself. Anyone sending email needs to realize that spam is very much in the eye of the beholder. Of course, this works both ways. Just because I think something is spam, doesn’t mean everyone else agrees with me. That’s why some of these anti-spam blackhole lists run into trouble. If just a few people dislike an email, and report it to a list, it can cause problems for legitimate mailers, and the people who actually do want to receive those emails. There isn’t necessarily an easy answer to this — but a good first step is for people to realize that spam really is only defined by the recipient, and each recipient may be different.

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Comments on “Spam Is What I Say Is Spam”

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I can type a little says:

Re: Definition of spam

Beware that a large percentage of spam is still not complaint with the laws and is sent by unethical people from difficult to trace locations around the world.
Many of these spammers use a tracking pixel in the email body which will let them know if the email was opened in an email client. They also use the “remove me” option for the same purpose. People who click the “remove me” link often find that they get even more spam. The reason spammers want to know which emails were opened is so they can tell which emails in their lists of millions of email addresses are real email addresses with a real human on the receiving end.
This is important because many lists are computer generated using simple algorithms to generate millions of “possible” email addresses at major ISP’s by using lists of names, numbers, and dictionary words. A computer generated list is not worth very much to a spammer; however, after using that list and saving email addresses with a confirmed recipient, a new, very useful list can be made. Often these lists are sold for top dollar to other spammers or used repeatedly for multiple spam campaigns over a long period of time.
My advice is to get a good spam filter (like the auto-learning one built into FireFox) and filter spam directly into a spam folder. Never open spam and avoid using the opt-out or “remove me” link in the email.

Dereck says:

Re: Definition of spam

Everyone is looking at the SPAM issue all wrong. This battle can be fought on two fronts. Let me discuss them both the best I can.
First, spam is unauthorized entry into our homes. The pc is mine, its in my house, and that email when recieved is now on my property. I have no ability to select which email i want to download from my ISP server. Therefore spammers are in violation of unauthorized entry onto my property. If a spammer encodes exploitable code or a potentially unsafe executable code, then they are vandalizing my property. If they get stuff installed that then relays information about my computer usage (spyware) then they are stealing from my property. This philosophy should be enforced it is no different than a person physically doing this.
Second, Spammers are no different than door2door salesmen & telemarketers. They are uninvited and unwanted regardless of what they want. If I didn’t ask for it I don’t want. Here in the US we have the ability to put up no solicitation signs and no-call lists for these people. This process is partially being done emails as well. We use lists to block ip address of known spammers. This is alright except most spammers spoof their identity on the web or use infected computers to do their dirty work. If you want to reduce spam this way, you must verify each email with MX lookups, Reverse DNS lookups and blacklist lookups. This should eliminate almost all negative spam. MX lookups check to see if it is a registered mail server, dns lookups check to see if the mail domain converted to IP and then back to the mail domain is the same. Most homemade mail servers for cable, dsl, and dialup do not have their own IP dns resultion for a domain unless they purchased it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The canonical definition of spam

is “unsolicited bulk email”, or UBE. This was debated at GREAT length decades ago, and that definition was settled on for a very long list of reasons, the most important of which are (a) it’s content-neutral and (b) it exempts solicited mail (such as mailing list traffic delivered to someone who signed up via a confirmed opt-in process) and (c) it focuses on the abusive nature of spam: “bulk”.

Other definitions are occasionally proposed; I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. Without exception, these are put forth either by (1) ignorant newbies who have failed to learn the correct definition (2) idiots who know the correct definition but have the hubris to think that they’re somehow going to “improve” on it and (3) spammers, who of course constantly seek to redefine spam as “that which we do not do”.

The bottom line is that if you note someone using ANY definition of spam other than UBE, you’re observing someone who has failed to master the first principles of the topic and thus may be safely ignored until they’ve undergone remedial education.

Joe (user link) says:


SPAM should NOT be in the eye of the beholder. I once have a few thousand people who subscribed to a mail list over a period of a few years. The server it was hosted on went dead. Three weeks later I contracted with a new list serve host who mandated that these current subscribers opt in again. I could not just move the subscriber base from the old to the new host – the new host required all these people opt in again. So a few thousand people were sent a message saing I switched servers and the new list-serv compan required them and were invited to opt-in again. About 25 AOL’ers decided this was spam, so the clicked the AOL ‘report spam” button which added m hosting compan to the AOL black list. These 25 AOL’ers who wrong – – the did not get spam at all, the got an opt in message. So leaving the decision to flag email as SPAM to the novice user is a big mistake. The are sometimes novice internet users and do not understand what the are doing or the consequences of their actions. The invitation, NOR the newsletter contained no ad’s, was free and was simply an administrative message.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: spam???

Which I think was Mike’s point. To those 25 people, yes it was spam. To everyone else that got that message, no it was not. So should AOL block your message to everyone because 2.5% of the recipients think it’s SPAM? I don’t think so…but that’s not how blacklists work.

Spam filters need to be a personal thing that each person trains themselves, and who can override such filters at anytime.

Rick says:

Re: spam???

I work at an incoming call center, when we make a sale we send the customer a e-mail conformation of that sale. Because of people using the “report spam” link on AOL, even though this is an email about a purchases they just made, we have to ask people with email addresses if they have an alternative e-mail address we can send the confirmation note to. If we say check your spam folder on AOL mostly we get “ah whuts zat?!”

Hedwig says:

Just a thought...

I must admit that I’m probably not very up-to-speed on the way it all works, but I just got a thought that I’d like to throw into the group:

“Would spam still be sent if the spammer had to pay for every message he sends?” Compare it to the postal service: you pay a stamp for every letter you send.

Before I get slaughtered by comments, let me explain just a bit further.

Suppose you could also keep a whitelist of everyone you trust to send you email. YOU control it, not your ISP. Every email address on that list can send you email for free. All others pay for every message they send and want delivered to you. Possibly you can even be notified of such messages and accept/reject them.

That means that if you give your email address to someone and put their address on your whitelist, there’s no difference with what is happening today. If some other party wants to send you a message, and they’re not on your whitelist, they pay.

I’d like some feedback on this…

Scott says:

Re: Just a thought...

Assuming all spam was from 1 country this may work, how would you collect from someone in taiwan if they don’t choose to pay? This would require ISP’s to charge for the mail before sending, bad guys would jump ISP’s and not pay. Or worse yet, use fake credit cards and create another problem.
Plus the worst offenders will not get hit, because they are using bots, the wrong people will get charged(however it may help people patch their boxes, which is a bonus.) Also will this require email users to have credit cards or some sort of paypal to use it?
It isn’t impossible, but it is very impractical and won’t really affect the worst ones.

Hedwig says:

Re: Re: Just a thought...

I agree with you, Scott, but still…

Suppose your (or for that matter any) ISP blocks the mail if:
a) the sender address isn’t on your whitelist, and
b) the mail isn’t paid for.

So the spammer in Taiwan or wherever that doesn’t want to pay? Simple: his mail doesn’t get to your inbox… Nor to the inbox of any other target.

And I suppose you already have an account with your ISP tyo handle billing. It could handle ’email billing’ as well…

Old Bear says:

Spam or not

If there is an “unsubcribe” option that isn’t just a link to prove your e-mail is legit – then it should be spam. But the emails you get that are jibberish or selling crap or whatever – that is spam. I subscribe to a few newsletters, but I have never asked for a way to make millions while sitting at home or found a need to enlarge any part of my body with a pump or a pill. Keep the net spam free.

Sam says:

Con the public

Very simply stated, Spam is anything I did not agree to recive!

Ither by asking for it, agree to some thing that said I was fine with it, or what ever the case is. As I recall, any email sent as a Bulk Mail that you have asked for or agreed to is suposed to have a opt-out or unsubscribe link in it.

I go to great length to not recive spam.

No offence to most people, but most people are just to dumb to know what they have and have not signed up for, what is and is not spam, in there eyes is just taking it to far.

Leave the laws they way they are…

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