Five months after a federal law was passed to fight spam, we’re still drowning in the stuff.

The “Can-Spam” Act, which promised to combat unsolicited commercial email, came into effect in January. Five months later, the amount of spam flying around the Internet has actually increased — from 78 percent to 83 percent of all U.S. email. Backers of the law say that without the legislation spam would be even more of a problem; another view is that the law, even though it requires that spammers let people unsubscribe from spam lists, just encourages and legitimizes unwanted mail.

The most common complaint about spam is that it is annoying, but it’s worse than that: spam opens households to the threat of computer viruses and worms, credit-card or identity theft, and — of course — pornography. (Although spam advertising pornography accounts for just 5 percent of commercial mail, while stock price tips, cheap loans and mortgages account for nearly 38 percent.)

The volume of unsolicited email clogging up inboxes around the world has been growing virtually unchecked in recent years. In 2001, spam accounted for 8 percent of all email; it’s now two-thirds, according to a study done last month by MessageLabs, an email filtering company. The U.S. has the highest proportion of junk mail, with about twice as much as Germany. And spam, in the form of text messages, is now entering finding its way into cell phones and pagers.

Europeans have done a better job of controlling spam than has the U.S. The E.U. employs an “opt-in clause,” meaning that recipients have to actively request commercial emails. The Can-Spam Act, by contrast, requires that people reply to emails to stop receiving them.

“The law goes part way to legitimise spam rather than outlaw it,” said Natasha Staley, information security analyst at MessageLabs.

Spam — not to mention fighting it — is big business. The Radicati Group, a consulting and research firm in Palo Alto, estimates that companies globally will spend $979 million on anti-spam software and services this year, up 50% from 2003. It is estimated that spam cost U.S. businesses $10 billion in 2003.

Some spam critics wish that congress would enact a “do not spam” list similar to the “do not call” list for consumers to block telemarketers. But the Wall Street Journal reports that the FTC chairman, Timothy Muris, was concerned that such a list of email addresses could fall into the wrong hands — the hands of spammers, say.

Last month, U.S. authorities made their first arrests under the Can-Spam legislation. Four people in Detroit were charged with emailing fraudulent sales pitches for weight-loss products. They were accused of disguising their identities and delivering emails by bouncing messages through unprotected relay computers on the Internet.

The Los Angeles Times comments that strong-arming spammers may not work for long. “Hunting down spammers is expensive and time-consuming. In any event, many marketers have moved their operations outside the United States to escape prosecution.”

So far, spammers do not seem to be complying with the Can-Spam Act. Anti-spam software company LashBack reports that over ninety percent of email reported as spam fails to offer a working unsubscribe mechanism, a feature required by the act. Even more disturbing, LashBack found that of the ten percent that offer an unsubscribe mechanism, thirteen percent use the request as verification of the email address and send more junk email to the individual, ignoring their wishes to be left alone.

Perhaps the largest impediment to eradicating spam is that some people obviously like it and buy products hawked by the electronic sales pitches. More than 6 million people — or 5 percent of email users — have bought products or services, according to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Last year the Direct Marketing Association reported $7.1 billion in annual sales from commercial e-mail, which supporters say is protected by the First Amendment.

The Pew survey found that 77 percent of Americans say spam makes their online experience unpleasant and annoying, and 29 percent said spam had caused them to use e-mail less.


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