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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.