You've Got Spam!

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The deluge of numbers proclaiming stratospheric growth rates for the Internet and anything that is ".com" continues unabated. Much of the hype and many of the numbers don't hold up well under close inspection.

One fact that has gotten lost in the fray is that e-mail rates have trailed far behind the rates of just going online to surf the Web. This year, that has changed in a big way, with e-mail use ballooning to become much more of an everyday part of the online experience. And tagging along with e-mail is something that also seems to be growing at the speed of the Net: the influx of spam, the unwanted commercial e-mails trying to sell you something or lure you to a Web site, often X-rated.

>From the headlines you might think everyone has a computer and goes online every day. But that's just not true: About two-thirds of American adults now use a computer, either at work or at home. And about half of the folks with access to a computer actually go online. Both numbers have been increasing, but not at dramatic rates this year.

What has shot up is e-mail use. Forty-six percent of those who have online access now say they use e-mail every day, the latest survey for the Pew Research Center shows. That is up dramatically from the 33 percent who reported everyday use in late 1998. Now 17 percent of the online users say they use e-mail three to five days a week and 14 percent say they send or receive messages one or two days a week. And the number of online folks who rarely or never use e-mail dropped from 19 percent last year to 15 percent this year.

It's not obvious why e-mail use would jump at this point in the Internet era. We can speculate about a variety of factors, but the underlying reality is fairly simple. E-mail is a tool that becomes hugely more useful as the number of your connected friends, relatives, and business associates also increases.

Rather than a smooth, slow rise in e-mail use, people reach a tipping point at which e-mailing becomes indispensable, and use just shoots up. This is particularly obvious in the business world, where suddenly entire companies find that e-mail has been transformed into an essential means of communicating with customers and suppliers.

But along with e-mail, we get spam.

It's a growing concern for legislators and regulators. This summer, one California congressman delivered 198,601 spam messages to the Federal Trade Commission to make his point about the magnitude of the problem. (Of course, to make the point for the television cameras, he delivered them on paper.)

And spam is not just a PR problem. Thirty-six percent of e-mail users say they receive a lot of unwanted messages (72 percent of which are sales solicitations). And about four in ten of them say that they get so much spam that they find it hard to get to the messages they want to read.

Spam is a problem and it is real. But some Internet advocates fear that heavy-handed regulation and legislation will crimp legitimate uses of e-mail in the effort to stop it.

As legislators are thinking about regulation, e-mail may wind up falling somewhere between the telephone and the "snail mail" delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Both direct mailers and telemarketers operate under some loose legal restrictions that do allow savvy consumers to limit annoying calls and massive mail deliveries. Spam is more intrusive than junk mail and less so than the telemarketers' calls at dinnertime. So the rules on spam could be similar to those on junk mail and telemarketers.

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