FTC: Consumer Privacy Comments Concerning Internet Mail Consortium--P954807
July 7, 1997
Secretary, Federal Trade Commission
Enclosed am supplements to our earlier comments, which were Document 12 on Project P954807. Please add these supplements to our previous comments on file. If you have any question, please feel free to contact me.
Paul E. Hoffman, Director
Unsolicited Commercial Email:
Definitions and Problems
Internet Mail Consortium
Internet Mail Consortium Report.
Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE) has become a major concern for Internet users due to the increasing amount of UCE that typical Internet users receive. Many proposals for technical and legislative remedies are being suggested, but few proposals define UCE or list its negative effects. This paper sets forth standard definitions and gives an overview of UCE effects, without proposing or supporting particular mechanisms for controlling their occurrence.
A common term for UCE is "spam", although that term encompasses a wider range of intrusive transmissions. For instance, the term "spam" originated in the realm of Usenet news, not email. There, individuals cannot request or refuse commercial email, although some newsgroups explicitly permit or encourage its inclusion as a part of the group charter. Further many people say that any unsolicited, bulk email (for example, with religious or political content) would also be counted as part of "spam". It well may be that discussion of control mechanisms will need to include non-commercial, as well as commercial, bulk mail.
These specialized terms are used here instead of the single, more common "Internet Service Provider" (ISP) because tens of millions of people get their mail service from organizations that are not ISPs. Almost everyone who gets email at their desk at work use their employers as a Destination Operator, but those companies are not ISPs. Also, many people get their Internet mail through free accounts in public libraries, schools, and so on, and the organizations running those mail servers should be differentiated from ISPs because they often are offering email access as a public service.
In many cases, ISPs which provide basic connectivity have no direct part in the problems associated with UCE. On the other hand, all Internet mail operators must deal with UCE problems every day. Hence, the terms introduced here include organizations providing Internet mail service to employees, as well as libraries and schools providing free service for their "customers" and also includes ISPs that include email within their set of products.
Mailing List Agent
MLAs are sometimes called "mailing lists" or "mailing list managers", although these terms do not define well the roles of the controlling software or of the people involved in controlling the software. Other terms, such as "listserv", are sometimes used generically but actually refer to specific implementations of MLAs.
Note that an MLA is not a recipient because it is not the final destination for the message, even though its email address might have been used for the UCE. Mail sent to an MLA will most likely be re-sent to many people, and those people are the recipients of the original mail, even though that mail has processed and re-sent by the MLA.
Problems Caused by UCE
Although the senders of UCE defend it as having little difference from traditional bulk mail, it in fact is quite different: UCE shifts almost all the costs of the message onto the recipients and their Destination Operators. The negative effects of UCE can be categorized into the effects on recipients, on the recipients' Destination Operators, and on the Internet backbone in general. Secondary effects also are felt by Origination Operators.
Further, many senders of bulk UCE use tactics which are often viewed as devious, and probably illegal, in order to reduce the cost to the sender or even to hide the true identity of the sender. Instead, costs are shifted from the actual sender to the receiver and their Destination operator. These tactics, which are becoming more common, are described separately because they are only tangentially related to UCE itself That is, these tactics can be used by senders of any kind of bulk email, not just commercial email.
Effects on Recipients
Real Costs to Recipients
Multiply these costs by the hundreds of thousands or millions of users that many pieces of UCE go to, and you can see that the cost to recipients is quite high, even without taking into account the considerable costs to Destination Operators and the Internet backbone.
There are other costs paid by all UCE recipients that are similar to recipients of bulk postal mail. For instance, there is the time lost sorting UCE from wanted mail, the time lost opening unwanted UCE that is disguised as email that the user might want to read, and so on. As the quantity of UCE increases, the cost of doing this sorting can become quite significant.
Social and Personal Costs
Similarly, the act of having to sort through cleverly-worded UCE in order to find actual personal email has caused many people not to use email to its fullest potential. These types of effects are causing many new users to avoid checking their mail as often as they would otherwise like, again causing less use of what could be a valuable medium. Use of "filters" by a recipient's email software can reduce some of this pain, but cannot eliminate it. The current state of filtering technology cannot distinguish between legitimate, personal email and UCE.
Effects on Destination Operators
Depending upon their specific business model, Destination Operators handle the costs of UCE differently. If the Destination Operator is an Internet Service Provider, the costs of UCE are borne by the ISP's users, through higher prices or lower service. If the Destination Operator is an employer, the costs of UCE are often taken out of the general networking budget, meaning that UCE causes lower company profits. If the Destination Operator is someone offering a free public mail service, UCE causes them to be able to offer less service to their clients.
Many Destination Operators report that they bear an additional and considerable expense, one of having to educate people about the nature of UCE and why they are receiving it. Because UCE tends to diminish people's desire to use the Internet, they are more likely to complain about it to their Destination Operators.
Effects on the Internet Backbone
Effects Caused by Malicious UCE Senders
The typical way that a deceptive UCE sender misappropriates service is to offload return mail and complaint handling onto an unsuspecting Origination or Relay Operator by specifying one or more incorrect return addresses in the message itself. They route the UCE through an unrelated Origination Operator's SMTP service. Both of these actions are quite easy to do and can make the source of the message almost untraceable, particularly if the UCE sender is using a short-lived Internet account that was obtained for the purpose of sending this UCE. The account is used once, to do the sending, and is never accessed again. Hence, the sender need not care at all whether its use for this purpose is ascertained.
Beyond the basic cost of deceptive use, the result of the unwanted mailing often causes many complaints to be directed at the Destination Operator that should instead have been directed at the UCE sender. These complaints can cause significant damage to the Destination Operator, such as by filling up mailboxes on the mail hosts and reducing service to legitimate users of the Destination Operator.
Core problems associated with UCE stem from the very low cost on the sender and the real costs on the recipients and their Destination Operators. There is no other common form of commercial communication that shifts so much of the cost of each message onto the recipients. The costs are particularly high on novice users and the Destination Operators who have a preponderance of novice user clients, but the costs are in fact borne by all Internet users.
This IMC Report is IMCR-002 and is named UCE-DEF.
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