The economics of spam

Junk emails cost $20bn a year. Not just an irritation.

Here's a fascinating new paper (pdf) from the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the economics of spam, by Justin Rao and David Reiley:

The negative externalities imposed by spam include wasted time for consumers: both wading through irrelevant advertisements in one’s inbox and missing an important message that went to the junk mail folder. They also include the costs important message that went to the junk mail folder. They also include the costs of server hardware, which requires more than five times as much capacity as would be required in the absence of spam, as well as the costs of spam prevention services provided by firms to reduce the burden on users. . .

Taken together, the total costs of spam worldwide today appear to be approximately $20 billion, in round numbers.

The authors review literature on the revenue of spammers, and find that it's likely to be around $300m a year. In other words, spam destroys around $19.7bn dollars of value every year. The authors compare this to car theft, which imposes societal costs of around $10bn and brings revenues to the thieves of around $1bn; and to driving a car, which imposes societal costs of around five cents a mile and brings in average revenue of around 60 cents a mile.

Clearly all these numbers are extremely rough estimates, but if they are even in the same ballpark as the truth then it is clear that spam ought to be a public policy priority to a far greater extent than it actually is. Imagine if the number of car thefts doubled overnight; would people really question whether that calls for governmental involvement?

The problem the authors identify is one of negative externalities, similar to the issues raised by carbon emissions. So one would expect the solution to be analogous to the solution economists often call for to deal with externalities, which is a Pigovian tax - charging someone who harms society an amount equivalent to the damage they do. Unfortunately, as the authors show, such a measure is pretty much impossible when it comes to email spam. The spammers would obviously not co-operate, and every alternative involves trying to graft on some form of payment mechanism to email, which is a protocol incredibly unsuited technologically to any such addition.

Instead, the best thing to do is probably to hit the spammers where it hurts: their revenues.

One fruitful avenue is to put legal pressure on domestic banks that process payments from foreign banks known to act on behalf of spam merchants. This could put downward pressure on conversion rates and with them, proifts. Another proposal comes from our colleague Randall Lewis, who imagines “spamming the spammers” by identifying spam emails and placing fake orders on spam-advertised stores. This step would increase the merchants’ costs dramatically, as they would find it much more difficult to fullfil orders, and their banks may raise their fees if they submit many invalid payment authorization requests. Of course, an unintended consequence is that from time to time, a legitimate merchant will be inundated with bogus product orders.

Commenting on the paper, Digitopoly's Joshua Gans points out that, under US law, that may not be entirely legal:

A few years back I contacted Yahoo and Google with an idea to counter spammers. What if for each spam email that they picked up, they responded — perhaps entering details into phishing forms? This would overwhelm spammers and they would not be able to find ‘legitimate’ responses from the gullible few. That would really alter their returns. Unfortunately, it was explained to me that such a measure would constitute an attack by a US corporation and, apparently, that is against US law.

Spam may be here to stay, then. The real solutions are technological, and don't involve fixing email so much as abandoning it altogether; the time for being able to accept free, unsolicited email from anyone seems to be coming to an end. Those who are trying to build its replacement will be happy indeed to hear that.

The full paper is a surprisingly good read; if you're looking for something to flick through on an e-reader over the weekend, why not give it a go?

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle