For Your Information - Information, Technology, Society
Issue #7, January 17, 2004 (Footnote: 12/17/2005)
It's Not The Technology, Dude™...
1. New Law Abolishes Spam -- NOT!
2. Computer Waste -- Recycling is good for the planet
** Feedback - Comments, please
1. NEW LAW ABOLISHES SPAM - NOT!
Congress recently passed a new law -- the so-called "CAN SPAM" law (officially, S.877, `CAN-SPAM Act of 2003') -- that will supposedly address the growing issue of Spam. (To see the full text of the law, go to http://thomas.loc.gov and search on bill number S.877.) Unfortunately, Congress caved in to the requests of monied business and we are the losers (again). In short, this law should be called the "I Can Spam" law. Here's why.
First, the law requires an
"opt-out" mechanism rather than the preferred "opt-in" approach. This means that anyone can legally send you the first spam and you have to take specific actions to remove yourself from the list. Second, the law allows anyone with a "prior business relationship" to send you unsolicited email, and since the definition of "prior business relationship" is very loose, you could be receiving lots of unwanted email. Third, the law precludes States from passing laws that are more restrictive Let's look at these issues in more detail.
Opt-Out versus Opt-In
The law requires that anyone sending you an unsolicited email (I'll call them "spammers") can do so without your permission, so long as they include a clearly recognizable mechanism that allows you to unsubscribe from the spammer's list and therefore "opt out" of future emails. This means that you either have to click on a hyper-link that will send you to their web page, or send them an email or postal mail with unsubscribe information in it. Unfortunately, that means that you have just confirmed that this particular email address is a real email address with a real, live person at the end... something that any anti-spam expert will tell you is a big no-no.
One of the reasons that it's not a good idea to respond to unsubscribe requests is the so-called "dictionary attack" -- an approach whereby the spammer generates millions of possible email address based either on words in the dictionary or simply by trying all possibilities (e.g., email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, ... email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and so on). Most of those email addresses will bounce and be removed from the spammer's database. Those that don't bounce could be valid or invalid, but if you respond to the email, you have just confirmed to the spammer that this address reaches a live person. Immediately, that email address becomes more valuable... and eligible to receive lots more spam!
The rule has been -- until this law passed -- NEVER respond to unsubscribe invitations from spammers.... NEVER!
In fact, the rule has always been -- until this law passed -- NEVER even look at the spam... NEVER!
This is because there are tricks (such as the "web beacon" (also known as the "web bug") trick that I mentioned in my Newsletter Issue #3 last year) that allows the spammer to verify that somebody is viewing the message without your doing anything but opening the email.
The preferred approach by everyone is the "opt-in" approach -- everyone, that is, except spammers, big business, the Direct Marketing Association and Congress. The "opt-in" approach requires that you explicitly request that someone send you the email message and that you have to explicitly make that request BEFORE you get any email. There were several such bills under consideration in last year's legislative session, but they all fell by the wayside -- presumably because spammers, big business, and the Direct Marketing Association have more clout with Congress than the rest of who are buried under the flood of spam these days.
The bad thing about the "opt-out" approach is that -- if you do not opt-out of the spam -- you have given your permission to receive lots more spam! Now you're in a real catch-22: if you don't respond to the opt-out or unsubscribe request, then you will continue to receive more spam; if you do attempt to opt-out, you are taking the risk of receiving even more spam once you confirm that your email address is valid.
As you can tell <grin>, I think Congress blew it big time. However, I figured there may be some benefit to the law, so I decided to give the opt-out approach a test.
Some Personal Spam Statistics
I started by keeping track of the emails that I received and the spam that was included in those emails. My methodology was simple:
- First, use my separate, web-based email service to see how many emails were waiting to be retrieved,
- Second, receive the emails into my main email client,
- Third, separate the spam from the non-spam emails, and
- Finally, search through the spam (very carefully :) to see if there were any candidates for my unsubscribe test. I also counted the spam received so that I could tabulate some statistics.
I use Outlook as my main email client, and Cloudmark's SpamNet as my spam blocker. I have included the results of my personal spam survey on the website, and will continue to update the information occasionally. It includes total emails, total spam, and percentage of spam to total email. I've also included a graph showing the results.
While searching through the spam, I noticed that a number of messages clearly showed an Unsubscribe (i.e., "opt-out") option at the front of the email message, so I investigated further. What I found was interesting. Some of the spammers may have already changed their mailing approach, in that they are including a physical postal address as required by the new law (I haven't checked to see if these are valid), along with a very conspicuous link to opt out. That is an improvement that, I believe, can be traced to the CAN SPAM law. However, not all the spams are following the standards required by law.
Out of 49 spam emails I received in one block (on 1/2/2004), 23 of them were from two domains: bluerocketonline.com and tekmailer.com. The opt-out email addresses contained a great deal of information, obviously describing the specific mailing list and my email address. The subjects were things like: "Yo Dude", "Winter Action", "Lucky Deals", "YourEyesOnly" and more -- ones that I'm sure some of you have seen, too.
Given that these two domains comprised almost 50 percent of the spam I received in one day, I decided to see if the opt-out option would work. With some trepidation, I clicked the link to unsubscribe from these two domains -- I clicked on only one from each of the tekmailer.com and bluerocketonline.com emails, and waited to see what would happen: less spam, or a flood of new spam.
To my surprise and great pleasure, my spam immediately plummeted! As you can see from my personal survey data, my spam dropped from an average of 71% to around 30% -- and has stayed down ever since! That's pretty impressive.
The astute reader will ask: "Well, then, doesn't this new anti-spam bill work? What's your beef?"
My response is two-fold.
First, to get this reduction in spam, I had to spend a significant amount of time picking through the emails, doing the research that I described to identify potential unsubscribe candidates, and then trying it out. That' is all unproductive (read "wasted") time. For everyone to do this kind of analysis would require a great deal of time and effort. For a corporation to do this on the massive amounts of email that they receive is completely prohibitive. To give you some idea of the size of the problem for corporations, consider this. I recently spoke to the CIO of a major international corporation about the impact spam had on his business. He responded that his company receives 80,000 spam emails per day. If it takes one second to hit the "Delete" key for each of these emails, that's a cost of almost 24 person hours per day!
Second, although my results have so far been positive, I took a great risk: I confirmed my email address to two spammers and could have received (might yet) much more spam. I still don't know if there will be a price to pay further down the line by my email address getting passed on.
Given all my efforts, there's still a flood of spam coming through to me -- I happened to get lucky and spotted two spammers that reduced my spam load. There are still many spam that don't follow the rules and/or which I'm not comfortable responding to as yet.
The bottom line is that getting rid of spam is a very time-consuming process, even if everyone were following the rules. I do not believe that I should have had to spend all that time getting rid of something that I never asked for in the first place.
FOOTNOTE October 21, 2005. I have discontinued updates to the personal spam log. It continues to be a problem for internet users, even though there are new technologies available to fight it. As you can see, my spam counts and percentages have been slowly, although fairly steadily, dropping -- at least as far as percentages are concerned. I recently became convinced that my data was no longer relevant, in that my ISP and others are now filtering out spam before it even reaches me. Therefore, data published by larger organizations with more direct access to traffic will be a better indicator. One such source is www.spamcon.org/directories/email-statistics.shtml.
2. COMPUTER WASTE - Recycling is good for the planet
I've wanted to do a piece on "Computer Waste" for some time now, and I've been collecting information for that article. That would cover a number of topics, including such things as: how much waste is generated because of computer technology; the toxicity of the manufacturing process (look at the IBM/cancer trial that is going on in Silicon Valley and reported on in the San Jose Mercury Times, among others); the emergence of less-developed countries to process the industry's waste; and recycling what we can.
That article is still in the works, but I wanted to get out one piece of information as a teaser. There are a number of ways that you can recycle and help out the planet. If you use inkjet cartridges or toner cartridges in your printers (and most of us do these days), we should recycle them rather than dropping them in the garbage. Here are three quick tips:
- If you use a laser printer, the toner cartridges can be recycled. Some of the companies selling replacement cartridges for their printers include shipping instructions so that you can recycle the cartridges back to them at no cost to you. Hewlett-Packard is an outstanding example of a company that has been doing this for years. Kudos to them! Brother doesn't, for example, so -- although I love their printers -- I have to put in a little more effort to recycle their toner cartridges.
- If you want to recycle printer cartridges and help a good cause, there are a number of partnerships between recycling operations and non-profit organizations. One such partnership involves the Next Step Learning Center here in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area. They have a partnership with a recycling center in Tennessee so that you can mail -- at no cost to you -- your used inkjet and laser cartridges. For the small inkjet cartridges, you just drop them in a plastic mailer, seal the mailer, and drop it in the nearest post office box.
- If you want to find out about such programs for your organization, check out www.recyclefree.com (inkjet cartridges, laser cartridges, and cell phone recycling), www.fundraisersusa.com (inkjet cartridge recycling, but I couldn't get some of their pages to work properly), and www.recyclefirst.com (inkjet cartridges, laser cartridges, cell phones, magnetic media, and hazardous waste recycling). My thanks to Nancy Williams for much of the information about these recycling programs and how Next Step Learning Center is using it to help the environment and themselves.
- Finally, you can recycle inkjet cartridges or laser cartridges at your nearest Office Depot, and receive a free ream of paper for your troubles.
The major problem with all these recycling programs is that of distribution and the associated economics.
Small items (such as inkjet cartridges) can be sent to the recycling center in prepaid mailers. That's easy to do, but first you have to get the mailers. I got a batch from Nancy, but so far I haven't seen any easy way for the general populace to get them. Of course, you can go to the website of the recycling vendors, but they seem to be geared to the institutional/non-profit folks (such as Next Step Learning Center) to sign up for the program, get the mailers in bulk, and then distribute them to folks they come in contact with. I haven't yet found a way for an individual to get the mailers sent back to them at no cost. If anyone knows of such a setup, please let me know.
Larger items (such as laser cartridges) pose even more of a problem. The recycling vendors provide postage-paid mailers that hold from 4-8 cartridges. This works great for a non-profit to collect from their members, but isn't necessarily great for the small office that doesn't use too many cartridges in a year. Distribution and economics again.
In some ways, the best program seems to be the Office Depot recycling, particularly for the laser cartridges. But they seem limited to only a small number at a time. I asked one of the sales people at my local Office Depot and they said they get quite a lot of cartridges, but they will not accept a large number at a time (she hinted that the upper limit might be about 5). So you are limited to the onesy-twosy approach.
What's needed is a widely-available mechanism whereby consumers and small businesses can easily obtain no-charge, pre-paid mailers and then simply mail their used cartridges to the recyclers. This would be a great opportunity for some company like Safeway, Albertson's, or Publix to make a contribution -- they have the location and the traffic. We all go to grocery stores on a regular basis (I assume that we all like to eat regularly :) and what better location for distributing the mailers? Our local Safeway already has a drop-off point where you can recycle used plastic shopping bags, and providing access to printer cartridge recycling mailers could be a valuable additional service.
If you have other ideas on how to solve the distribution problem, I'd be interested in hearing about it.
I hope to publish more on this topic before too much longer :)
** FEEDBACK -- Comments, please
As always, comments are welcome. Use the form below to send them to me. If you tried to use the email form I included in my last email, my apologies -- it was broken. This one works :)
1/1/2007 - Form disabled due to spammers using it :-(
All the best for a better 2004!