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Spam - Unsolicited Commercial Mail - The latest menace on the net

Whether it offers the chance to enlarge or reduce parts of the body in improbable ways or amazing opportunities to make money without doing any work, spam is now part of a computer user's daily life. It is thought to account for about half of all emails sent over the internet.

If you have a Hotmail account the chances are you'll already be aware of how serious an issue spam is becoming. Leave it a day and you'll find your inbox flooded with free viagra offers and ways to earn thousands of pounds without even raising a finger.

This personal inconvenience is, however, just one side of a growing problem. Spam is costing companies large sums of money in lost productivity and placing IT managers in a dilemma.

Just dealing with it costs US businesses $10 billion a year.

A research suggests that by the year 2007 every user would be receiving 10-plus emails a day.

The volume of spam is fast approaching 350bn pieces a year in the US alone. Since it can be sent free, there are no limits to its further expansion. It already makes up 70 per cent of the traffic passing through the servers of America Online, the largest internet service provider in the US.

The Californian senate has passed a bill outlawing it with the toughest anti-spam legislation adopted or introduced anywhere in the US, it provides for any recipient to sue the sender for $500 (£300).

The bill applies to anyone sending span to or from a Californian address.

It requires advertisers to get the agreement of a recipient before an email is sent, putting the onus for the first time on the advertiser.

The litigant will be entitled to legal costs and the judge may add a $250 fine to pay for the enforcement of the law.

The judge can also triple the penalty if it is shown that the sender wilfully continued to send spam.

The so-called "Florida spam king", Eddy Marin, claims to send out 50m unsolicited commercial emails every day. He makes a profit if only five people respond.

At zero marginal cost, near-zero response rates can turn a profit. The recent reports on a spammer who sends 10m e-mails a day who gets 50 daily orders that earn him $700,000 a year reveals a specific moral problem of subsidised profitability. Since a .0005 per cent response rate can earn you almost $1m a year, vendors could sell virtually anything through e-mail - from cut glass to paintings of dogs playing poker. But they do not. Capitalism's tendency to drive everything to the middle of the road seems not to apply here. Roughly half of spam either offers kinky sex or preys on economic or penile insecurity. Spam is not just a marketing technique but a subculture, one that speaks to a minuscule fringe of deviants in a deviant idiom. The six-year-old girl who accidentally opens a photograph of naked men with bullwhips represents collateral damage.

Spam is creating a multitude of problems but they fall under two main headings. First, by its sheer bulk spam constitutes a private seizure of public assets, in the form of bandwidth. Second, a sick and unsavoury culture is thriving on the profits of this enterprise, rendering cyberspace unfrequentable for all children and unpleasant for most adults. Solving the first problem will solve the second but it will take regulation.

You have the power to fight this menace. Get a spam filter. Some mail packages already have them built-in. It takes about 10 seconds to turn the filter on and it takes the filter only a couple of days to learn what's junk and what isn't. Everything that looks like spam goes into a junk mailbox and is deleted after a week.

Once a week quickly scan through the junk in case the system has incorrectly put a non-spam email in there. This does occasionally happen, but it's not a significant issue: the human brain is fantastically good at scrolling through long lists of messages and spotting the odd non-spam item.

Copyright © 2007 Jishi Samuel