E-mail Spam: What it is and how it works

Any individual, who has an email address, is susceptible to encountering an e-mail spam. It is a term that refers to “unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) or unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE)” (Knowledge Base 1) and is mainly comprised of advertisements.

It also comes in a variety of forms for instance, “sale of health products, bank and phishing scams, chain letters, pornographic sites, fake investment schemes” (Knowledge Base 1). On the issue of e-mail spam, Cobb believes that “all spam is irrelevant and intrusive…offensive, fraudulent and illegal” (Cobb 2), the exact sentiments most email addresses’ owners will have. It is an ever persistent problem even with all the counter measures taken against it.

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How do the spammers obtain the email addresses? They do this by either guessing or using software that aids them in generating names (Knowledge Base 1). Another way could be buying lists “harvested from around the internet” (Jamie & Bobbie 1).

Since they incur very little cost in sending, they send them out in thousands and in order to get one’s attention, they have perfected their tricks (Knowledge Base 1). Some tricks include: using third parties such as Yahoo!, AOL, or Hotmail and also spoofing, which entails “forging of headers” (Knowledge Base 1).

Why spam is considered unethical

Spam is taken with more seriousness than any other form of junk mail; a few people actually benefit from it while others are seriously cost by it (Spinello 2). What makes spam more popular, is its cost effectiveness to the sender i.e. “it costs the sender less that it costs all other parties impacted by the sending of the message” (Cobb 2).

In essence, the consumers and the Internet Service Providers, ISPs, are the ones who bear most of the cost. Which raises the first ethical/moral question, why should the recipients bear the costs? According to Cobb, “if there was no spam, ISP could spend half as much as they currently do on facilities and bandwidth and still handle the same amount of legitimate traffic” (Cobb 4). They can also be viewed as “free riders who fail to contribute in a way proportionate to their consumption of internet resources” (Spinello 6).

Spammers make a lot of money from activities, which are considered illegal. They “demand for cash, sale overpriced products and even access bank details” (Jamie & Bobbie 1). A case in point is an “Arizona Company which made profits worth $3million, 12 luxury cars, over $20 million in bank accounts…” (Cobb 4).

The amounts of profit made in this indecent forum cannot be overemphasized and it definitely raises moral questions. It becomes a dilemma when there are people who wish to engage in legitimate business for instance when “mainstream advertisers and political organizations” wish to send their messages via “bulk email”: does that then constitute spam email? (Spinello 1)

Another unconventional way spammers use is how they obtain the recipients details (Spinello 2). Privacy has been violated; requests to stop sending the spam ignored and use of “forged addresses” are the lines these spammers have crossed (Spinello 2). In some cases they will even use a person’s account, without consent to forward messages and this in essence is stealing “Internet service” (Cobb 5).

Despite the many lawsuits that have been lodged against them, spammers are not about to stop invading our space. This is because the benefits and profits they obtain from their activities are worth the risk of being prosecuted (Jamie & Bobbie 1). Several individuals and organizations have taken the extra mile in trying to avoid spam in their systems and this has been done through blocking and filtering (Cobb 5). There even exist anti-spam laws though they are not as effective as people hoped they would be (Cobb 6).

Can spam be considered ethical?

The other side of the coin poses the argument that spam does have a positive side, this being supported by “vendors who rely on spam” (Spinello 2). To the advertisers it is an “efficient and inexpensive way” of marketing their products and that the recipients actually “enjoy it” (Spinello 2). Other advantages include: “small entrepreneurs” spend less and broadening the market since the target group in cyberspace is huge (Spinello 3).

The other defense the supporters hold is that spam falls under the category of “free speech” and its infringement would be violating the “First Amendment Protection of traditional advertising” (Spinello 3). They also throw back the argument of accessing addresses back to recipients and claim that since it is in a public directory, then spammers should not be blamed for accessing and using the addresses (Spinello 3).

A balance should be reached between the ethical and unethical issues. For instance, “vendors and advertisers” should respect an individual’s privacy to choose what they would or would not like to receive and not force their products on them (Spinello 4). As Spinello rightfully puts it, everyone who uses the internet must be “morally and socially responsible” (Spinello 6) since the cyberspace is a common place. In this way, the common good of all users will be achieved.

Works Cited

Cobb, Stephen. The Economics of Spam. Spam Help, 2003. Web. April 18, 2011

Knowledge Base. What is Spam? KB Data, 2010. Web. April 18, 2011

Spinello, Ran. Ethical Reflection on the problem of Spam Staff, 1999. Web. April 18, 2011

Jamie, Wilson and Bobbie, Johnson. “He sent 38 billion emails and called himself the Spam King. Then Bill Gates went after him.” The Guardian, 11 August, 2005.


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