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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

If junk e-mail isn't to your taste, let Uncle Spam know

Banning this rubbish would save businesses in the UK a lot of time and money

IN MY FIRST JOB, fresh out of University, I worked in a small open plan office of about eight people. One day my boss, who sat at the corner desk, suddenly invited me over to examine the contents of his filing cabinet. He pulled a drawer out and pointed towards it. “What do you suppose all that is?” he asked.

I peered into the drawer. It just looked like a pile of random bits of paper. Letters, memos and faxes were mixed up with reports, charts and diagrams, and the occasional trade publication. I couldn’t really figure out what this particular filing system was supposed to achieve. “I’ve absolutely no idea”, was my reply.

“That lot”, he said, “was the entire contents of my desk in April last year. I just got so fed up with it that I dumped it all into this drawer.”

“Funny thing”, he added, “nobody seems to have noticed the slightest difference.”

Years later, I know just how he felt. These days the paper is bad enough, but it’s the emails that really pile up. And one is sorely tempted to just hit the 'Del' button on the whole lot of them and see if anybody actually notices.

Although most of the technical language and jargon of the computer industry is relentlessly American, there is one word, 'Spam', which owes its origin to the Brits.

'Spam' is the term used for the electronic equivalent of junk mail – unsolicited emails – fast becoming one of the biggest headaches of modern life. The term derives, of course, from a Monty Python sketch – clearly computer nerds on both sides of the Atlantic share the same sense of humour.

We are all used to junk mail dropping through the letter box. But the fact that a physical mailshot costs the originator a pound at least just to print and post tends to limit them to offers that you might just possibly be interested in.

However electronic mail, once created, cost just the same to send to a few hundred, or to a few million, recipients, and as a result they tend to be scattered quite indiscriminately by their originators.

One friend, an American technology writer, has been forced to abandon the familiar email address he has used for many years because it had become all but useless. He believes his email ratio is now over 20:1 in favour of spam. Now he has a new email address that he only gives to trusted contacts.

But even that doesn’t really work. I have an email address that I only use to pick up mail when travelling. Despite the fact that I have never, ever, used this email address to send messages I still get around ten pieces of Spam a day sent to this account.

In fact, messages with headers such as 'Exclusive Quality Lingerie', 'FREE Debt Consolidation', '100% FREE PORN', and 'Urgent: Check (sic) is unclaimed', have arrived there in the last few hours. It is reckoned that handling all this rubbish costs UK business about £3Bn a year.

Not only is it all extremely tedious, and often highly unpleasant, it clogs up legitimate channels of communication. Over the next few years more and more people will switch to wireless connectivity to stay in touch, using services provided by a mobile phone operating company.

There will be a significant cost per message to receive your email in this way, but many of us will be willing to pay it to keep in touch with our business interests. What we will not be amused by, however, is discovering that the message with the sensible header that you have just downloaded was really just an advert for Viagra.

There is only one real answer, and it has to happen soon. In December, the European Union put provisions to ban unsolicited spam into the new European telecommunications laws which are now in development. The Japanese government has already imposed similar restrictions as of February this year.

Unfortunately, the Americans believe in ‘self-regulation’ and are not at all keen on banning any forms of commercial behaviour. And since 99.9% of the spam in the world is from the “land of the free”, legal action by Europe and Japan will have limited affect on the flow.

The US Federal Trade Commission is currently seeking comments on how best to proceed. I suggest we all spam them (at until it gets the message.

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