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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”