Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Ethics of Spam

I assume everyone agrees that spamming is wrong. But what are the ethical obligations of those who receive spam? I want to make the further claim that it is immoral to respond positively to spam (e.g. through clicking a link, or - worse still - actually buying a spammed product). To quote BBC News (via Dr. Pretorius):
The fact that one in ten e-mail users are buying things advertised in spam continues to make it an attractive business, especially given that sending out huge amounts of spam costs very little.

An old PC World article suggests that "even a 0.0001 percent positive response rate constitutes a break-even point". So if you respond to spam, you've just created an incentive for criminals to spam a million other people. I say that makes you seriously morally culpable. Don't do it.

The only way spam is going to stop is if we remove the market for it. Each time someone responds to spam, they guarantee the rest of us will suffer more of it. That's just wrong. Given the huge costs imposed on society by even a few responsive individuals, this might justify going so far as to make it illegal to respond to spammed offers. Even if the law couldn't be enforced, it might provide people some extra reason to not respond to spam. At the very least the measure should help highlight the societal costs of spam-responding, and so discourage those who do so out of simple ignorance. What do you think?


  1. Laws that can't be enforced are a terrible idea and we should be trying to get rid of the ones we have, not create new ones.

    Among other evils, they diminish respect for the law and create opportunities for discriminatory enforcement. An anti-spam law could even be used to suppress political newsletters and similar emails.

    This is an economic problem not a legal one.

    As long as the cost of sending email is virtually zero, we'll never convince enough people to ignore spam so that it becomes uneconomic for spammers to send it.

    There are only two practical choices:

    1) Do nothing, except come up with better ways to process the spam once received.

    2) Figure out a way to charge people a small fee for each email they send.

  2. I agree with Nigel, we shouldn't and probably can't successfully make spam illegal. But, I also agree with you, Richard, that the people who are responding to it are in some way causing the rest of us to suffer. The same could be said about those that purchase the products being sold by telemarketers. But, I guess if they're getting a good deal, who are we to tell them they shouldn't take advantage of it? The real jerks are the one's doing the spamming.

  3. I agree with Richard that it is immoral to respond to spam, and agree with the other commenters that it should not be illegal to respond to spam.

  4. A per email charge is throwing out the baby with the bathwater and would cripple e-mail.

    Criminalising purchases through spam is not a goer either.

    No easy answer to spam except a mixture of education, techical solutions, legislation against spammers (not customers) and international co-operation.

  5. "So if you respond to spam, you've just created an incentive for criminals to spam a million other people. I say that makes you seriously morally culpable." If someone makes me an offer, I fairly take up this offer, I would be doing something immoral just because it acts as an incentive? Anything just because it ACTS as an incentive, is immoral, even though other than that there is nothing immoral with the act? This seems a bit foolish to me.

    "Each time someone responds to spam, they guarantee the rest of us will suffer more of it. That's just wrong. Given the huge costs imposed on society by even a few responsive individuals..." I see no guarantee (morally significant anyway). These costs are not imposed by those individuals who are responding, but rather those who are spamming.

    This argument is similar to another, someone kills an endangered animal, offers to sell that endangered animal, someone buys the dead animal, then this shows that there is a market, so they do it again.
    I claim that the buyer does nothing wrong (at least other than letting someone profit from something illegal (which spam in not, it is merely an illegal form of advertising)), just by buying that animal. The killing of the endangered animal is immoral, that is enough.

    You are partially morally capable for being raped because you gave them an incentive, you looked too darn sexy.

    The truth is, we have a terrible system, while it has its up-sides, it seemingly allows for spam (it is difficult to justify that their first contact is immoral just because you did not want it). Hell, I think that the current laws that we have against spam are questionable in their moral justification. Because of this, it might be better to decriminalise spamming, and hell, why not even promote such activity, having more spam might make us create a better system.

    But then again, I might think differently if I had actually received any spam in the last two years.

  6. Yes, buying poached animal goods (e.g. ivory) is also seriously immoral, for the same reasons.

    Don't you think it's wrong to knowingly buy stolen goods? This one, at least, is also illegal. The principle is the same in the case of buying spammed goods: you are helping others to profit from an immoral (and illegal) activity.

    The rape case is rather different. Looking good doesn't create a market for rape, after all. But I guess it shows that not all 'incentives' are morally culpable -- one does need to take other factors into account.

    Needless to say, buying spammed goods is a lot closer to buying stolen goods than to wearing miniskirts.

  7. Are they profiting from an illegal activity? They seem to be only making money from the transaction, not the actual spamming. E.g. I pay for some legal, and they are legal even though the method used to promote them is illegal (ignoring false advertising), enlargement pills, they have not sold anything illegal. This is not like the case of buying stolen goods, I would not be buying stolen goods, merely goods that have been advertised illegally.

    Am I contributing to a market? Surely I am. But only a market for enlargement pills, not the spam that advertises them.

    I disagree that we are helping people profit from an illegal activity. I may be providing them encouragement for them to spam other people. The question is, am I doing anything immoral by merely affirming that there is a chance that they will get customers by spamming?

    A good analogy is buying a car that has only been advertised by false advertising, and that you know that they are breaking the law (to make the case similar to the spam case, since spam is illegal and you necessarily know that it is illegal). Is there an ought stopping you from buying the car? There is an ought concerning policing the illegal activity, but concerning buying the car? It is not that the car is illegal, unlike the stolen goods example, but rather the advertising is illegal. This is the same as the spam case, the things being advertised are legal, but the advertising is illegal. If you buy the car then the car company would be more likely to keep on with the illegal advertising, advertising which, like spam, affects other people. I say go ahead, buy the car, and at the same time do something about the advertising (but this does not stop you from buying the car).

    I see advertising as separate from the actual act of buying the things being advertised.

  8. You're right, false advertising is a better analogy. But I think it would be a mistake to deny that the buyer contributes to the illegal advertising 'market'. I think the buyer clearly is "helping people profit from an illegal activity"; by buying their goods through a spammed ad, you are rewarding them for sending out that ad. You're making the activity worthwhile for them.

    This strikes me as a simple collective action problem. If the odd individual advantages himself through buying desired goods (that were illegally advertised), he thereby makes everyone worse off (by encouraging that illegal activity). So it seems a clear candidate for invoking moral obligations.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Ha, I just deleted a comment spam, how appropriate...

    Anyway, Patrick raises some interesting questions there. I actually agree with him that (most) advertising is a bad thing, as I discuss further here.

    Does that mean purchasing advertised products is wrong? That depends. Is your purchase encouraging further wrongdoing? In most cases, your purchase would have a tiny influence (compared to a purchase through spam), and the retailers probably wouldn't know the *reason* behind your purchase anyway, i.e. whether the advertising made any difference. (They'd probably rely on general statistical indicators.)

    So I think purchasing through normal advertising is not nearly so bad, and may not be bad at all (at least in some circumstances). It's also worth noting that normal advertising is not illegal, so that may be another differentiating factor.

    But I guess the analogy at least suggests that we have some moral responsibility for our actions as consumers, so that's something to bear in mind.

  11. If you're not smart enough not to respond to spam, you deserve to be taken in by it. For every method spammers come up with, we come up with a method for filtering it out; most of the time, our email providers update the software for us so we never even have to see it. I'm fascinated that it even works; i would have thought people would've stopped thinking that enlargement pills are anything more than placebos by now, but there's a sucker born every minute, so...
    And why haven't we heard from anyone who employs spam as a marketing tool yet?


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