• Toward Understanding Sustainability and Usability of Email Communication in the Age of Spam

      Lueg, Christopher; Huang, Jeff; Twidale, Michael (2006)
      This is a submission to the "Interrogating the social realities of information and communications systems pre-conference workshop, ASIST AM 2006" Physically dispersed people (re)find themselves online for the sake of sustaining and extending community, and email is one of their most important online communication means. In the U.S., for example, almost all Internet users use email which seems to be rapidly becoming more used than the telephone (Haythornthwaite and Wellman 2002, p. 6). According to Clarke (2004) it was estimated in 2003 that 75 per cent of Australians 16 years and over had Internet access and the dominant services used were email and the web (other services like IRC catching up). Sustainability and usability of the email system are under pressure though. It is well documented that a large proportion of email is now "spam" which is a colloquial substitute for the cumbersome but precise technical expression "unsolicited commercial email" or UCE. Economical studies of the spam phenomenon suggest that the spam load has become a major financial issue costing the community billions of dollars per annum (e.g., Ferris Research 2002) as a large percentage of email traffic is now made up by spam messages. In January 2006, the global ratio of spam in email traffic was 66.6 per cent (MessageLabs 2006); AOL has reported up to 80%. From the user's point of view, spam clogs email inboxes making it costly to retrieve email and to find genuine emails. Some people also stop using email because of the often offensive content of spam messages. Fallows (2004) reports that 29% of Internet users participating in two nationwide (U.S.A.) studies stated that they use email less because of spam, 63% of email users say spam has made them less trusting of email in general, and 77% of email users say spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying. In order to protect email users from receiving spam, anti-spam measures, such as email filters and server block lists, have been deployed widely. We are particularly interested in understanding how now widely deployed spam filters affect email communication. There is some, often anecdotal, evidence that anti-spam measures may be a double-edged sword but as yet there is little to be found in the mostly technology-oriented spam filtering literature often focusing on the performance of (most likely perfectly adjusted) spam filters. Spam filters installed on people's computers at home however may not always be as up-to-date. Professional message filtering services also report fabulously low false-positives rates (i.e., genuine email classified as spam). MessageLabs (2003), for example, state their technology achieves 96.4% effectiveness and 0.04% false positives.A finding reported by Fallows (2003) however is that 30% of Internet users participating in her studies stated that they are concerned that their filtering devices may block incoming email and 23% of email users said they are concerned that their emails to others may be blocked by filtering devices. Fallowsâ study did not analyze in detail though if the concerns voiced were based on actual false-positive experiences with email services or if concerns were unspecific. Our early analyses persuaded us that there may indeed be a problem. Our ongoing analysis is somewhat more equivocal. There is some evidence that email users may be caught in the crossfire but what exactly causes the 'collateral damage'? Is it filtering technology that does not work as precisely as expected once deployed in situ? Is is a question of inappropriate email interfaces? (e.g., Lueg and Twidale 2005) Is it that reliable email has become a function of economic development as suggested by global email players AOL and Yahoo introducing ways for business to have their email bypass AOL and Yahoo customers' email filters by paying certain fees (Colquhoun 2006)? Or is it perhaps something that might be called 'digital redlining' as certain filtering and blocking policies may have an effect is similar to redlining practices of U.S. banks discriminating against African Americans living in poor areas of cities (and so contributing to the rising problems of those areas)? After all, hosted spam-filtering service SpamStopsHere states on their web site "[...[] blocking email from countries notorious for sending spam is an effective filtering method. Which countries to block, if any, is a business decision. Click here for a discussion of why China, Taiwan and South Korea should be blocked." At this stage we are not sure if digital redlining was ever a major problem, if it once was, but is diminishing, or if it is transforming into new kinds of inequity as the nature of the measures and countermeasures of the concerned parties continues. The military metaphor of innocent and often disempowered third parties caught in a battleâ s crossfire remains potent, even if in this case it turns out to be a threat to be avoided or minimized rather than proving to be a current crisis to be addressed. Our aim is to encourage discussion of the implications for equity of measures that may otherwise be adopted exclusively for reasons of economic expediency or in reaction to a widely accepted threat. As with so many policy decisions, agreement on the importance of addressing that threat does not mean agreement on the measures taken. The unintended negative consequences of these measures on the rich lead to remarkably rapid corrections. The unintended negative consequences on the poor and those lacking influence must also be considered. We would like to use the symposium for sharing experiences regarding some of the difficulties we are facing as researchers.