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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA