Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Cost of Spam

Some people wonder if spam should really be considered a criminal offense because it doesn't really hurt anyone. Some people claim that prohibiting spam is prohibiting legitimate speech. Some people are idiots.

Take Blogger.com for example. Lots of people (like me) use the free services of Blogger to create their blogs. People write about their lives, their pets, their stupid dates, their lethargic Saturday mornings, their work, and lots and lots of other stuff. Some do this for recreation, others do it with profits in mind. Either way, normal users abide by the guidelines of the service and use it in the way it was intended to be used. They create value for themselves, for their readers, and for Google, who owns Blogger. This relationship is symbiotic. The more good blogs, the better Blogger becomes.

Spammers, however, exploit it. They use automated tools to post massive quantities of content that is of no value to anyone (not even themselves, since they won't ever read it). They post it to automatically created blogs as well as into other people's blogs in the form of comments. They do this because for a few of them there is the potential to make money. This relationship is parasitic. As spam increases, the value of Blogger decreases.

Every blog takes up server space. That has a cost. Every time a user views a splog (spam blog) it uses bandwidth. That has a cost (for Google, for the user, and all the intermediaries who carried the data). Every time a user searches on Blogger and finds spam instead of a real result, that devalues the service and wastes that users time. More costs. In order to preserve the integrity of the service and protect it from exploitation, Google must allocate some of it's resources to spam detection, removal, and prevention (employees, computers, electricity, time, etc., etc.). Big costs. In order to prevent spam, Google implemented word verification for posts and comments; Yet another price (in time and convenience) that users had to pay because of spammers.

Spamming is like writing with tacks on the highway. It may be speech, but it is neither free nor tolerable. It is criminal.

As I have shown, the parasitic nature of spam (all spam) creates social costs. In other words, spam is cheap because spammers can exploit various online services and systems (Blogger, email, etc) and off-load their costs onto the users and providers of those services and systems. This is just like a factory that pollutes the river that a nearby town uses for its water supply. The factory exploits the location of the river in order to avoid paying the costs of proper disposal. So, the town must pay the costs of cleaning the water for its use until the town gets wise to the factory and passes laws that force it to either stop polluting or to pay for the filtering.

In the case of the factory, which produces something people want, the fines should generally be fixed at a level that permits the business to continue. In the case of spam, which produces nothing of value, the penalties should be set high enough to destroy all profitability (thereby removing the economic incentives to spam in the first place).

My advice: Eat some spam. Don't be a spammer.


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