Darwin and spam

According to a recent CipherTrust study, consumers respond to and spend money on five per cent of spam messages that link to porn sites. That’s in contrast to the 0.025 per cent response rate generated by pharmaceutical spam and the 0.0075 per cent rate for spam hawking Rolex watches and the like.

Why is this? Because evolution has made us more interested in sex than in medicine or fashionable timekeeping. It is all about what ensures greater survival.

But spam and Darwinian evolution are more interlinked than that.

Not too long ago, I blogged about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the state of California taking to court Qing Kuang “Rick” Yang and Peonie Pui Ting Chen for an enormous spamming business that generated mail under various names, including Optin Global, Vision Media, USA Lenders Network, USA Lenders and USA Debt Consolidation Service.

The case resulted in a deal in which the defendants didn’t admit any wrongdoing but were fined US$475,000 and agreed to refrain from illegal activity and to monitor their affiliates more closely.

This was a victory of sorts for the CAN-SPAM legislation, as well as for consumer activism, because what motivated the FTC to take the Optin Gang to court was consumers sent in more than 1.8 million examples of the defendants’ spam.

As this spam violated almost every provision of the CAN-SPAM Act, the FTC decided to do something about it. I concluded my blog entry with a thought concerning the Darwinian forces involved. In this case a species, Optingangus Aggravatus (a member of the Spammerus family), found a niche and, like all animals that intend to survive and prosper, went about exploiting it.

The problem was that the Optin Gang became too big for its niche. It managed to set itself up to be detected by the FTC.

The FTC, acting like predators, picked it off. Score one for the forces of nature.

Unfortunately, Darwinian forces keep pushing things along, so there are plenty of other members of the Spammerus family around to jump into the void left by the removal of the Optin Gang.

Its disappearance simply leaves more of the niche for other spammers to capitalize on and to do so with less competition and more knowledge of where the dead species went wrong.

In other words, every time we get rid of a spammer we’re opening the doors for new players to enter the market and evolve so that they adapt to their environment more successfully. We are breeding better spammers.

Part of the problem arises because we’re picking off only the biggest spammers. When they disappear, smaller spammers get a larger market and become more successful. This gives them more of a reason to stay in business. Their success will lure others into the game, ensuring that new spam operations are always taking the place of those that die or get killed off.

What can we conclude from this? First, there will always be new spammers because the rewards are great enough to make it worthwhile. Second, below a certain size (the spam-volume event horizon) spammers are too small to face a liability more serious than their ISP cutting them off. Third, spammers that get big have to get smart if they are to survive.

The problem is that the cost of finding and prosecuting these spammers is enormous. And picking off only the biggest is fostering the evolution of more-wily spam operators, who will cost even more to prosecute. Perhaps the answer is to stop prosecuting and thereby slow evolution.

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