Just about every day, it seems, somebody comes up with a new idea to do something about the spam that clutters up your mailbox and mine, and some of them are absolutely dazzling. My host has installed an extensible filter system that seems almost trainable: show it examples of things that it missed, and it will not miss them next time. The first week I turned it on, it caught about half the offending items; now it's up to 80 percent or so.

The problem with systems like this, though, is that they have to keep improving them constantly, as spammers rework their tawdry pitches to get past the filters. So some people have placed their faith in legislation, hoping that the power of government can somehow be harnessed to put an end to this plague. The fact is, though, you can pass all the laws you want in this country, and it won't mean a thing to a spammer, who can move his operation to Trinidad or Timbuktu without breaking his stride.

The latest craze is "challenge/response" systems, in which mail is blocked until the sender coughs up a secret code or some other sort of key. This has the advantage of actually working most of the time — spam automation doesn't actually receive return mail, usually because the spammer's email address is faked, therefore no one is likely ever to send the key — but the disadvantage of doubling the amount of mail being sent, as each spam generates a response message, and we're already struggling with mountains of mail already.

The fact of the matter is simply this: spam is sent because spam gets results. The numbers, on a percentage basis, are negligible, but the cost of sending millions upon millions of spams is so low that even a few dozen responses mean profit. So the only way spam can be killed off is if no one responds to it, and this is never going to happen. Spam, like many endeavors in contemporary society — rent-to-own stores, vendors of so-called nutritional supplements, America Online — profits from the fact that 50 percent of the population possesses below-average intelligence. And frankly, if you believe that spending $200 for a bunch of capsules full of ground-up shagbark and God knows what else will give you a penis worthy of a porn star, you deserve to have your mailbox stuffed with garbage: it matches your head. No, the other head.

The Vent

#355
1 September 2003

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