By Jon Bonné
updated 3/17/2004 8:20:08 PM ET 2004-03-18T01:20:08

As though anyone with an e-mail address needed a reminder: Spam has us more frustrated than ever, a new study finds.

Despite the passage of a new federal law meant to stem the endless waves of junk messages, Internet users have even less trust in e-mail than last summer and many of us are using it less often, according to data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

More than a third of U.S. e-mail users say unsolicited messages have made them less trusting of their inboxes, Pew found.  Forty percent of us believe spam has made it unpleasant or annoying to be online, and nearly one in five e-mail users are checking their accounts less often out of annoyance with the endless flood of solicitations for everything from porn to refinancing, to say nothing of waves of nasty virus-toting mail .

“The reality of the situation is that e-mail is embedded in most peoples’ lives,” said Lee Rainie, the director of the nonprofit project. But as more spam clogs up inboxes, Rainie said, “Instead of checking their e-mail five, six times a day, they might be checking it once.”

Among the findings:

  • Seven in 10 e-mail users said they had gotten unsolicited mail containing porn or “adult content.”
  • 19 percent of respondents said they were getting more spam at work, and 24 percent said they got more at home. However, a quarter of e-mail users said they were getting less porn spam, while 16 percent said they received more.

These latest results do not bode well for the federal anti-spam law, passed by Congress last year and in effect since January 1.

'What have you accomplished?'
The CAN-SPAM law, as it is known, requires unsolicited mail to be marked as such, to include a valid return e-mail address and mailing address and to allow users to opt out. Six major Internet Service Providers, including AOL and Microsoft’s MSN service, sued hundreds of alleged spammers last week under the new law. (MSNBC is an NBC-Microsoft joint venture.)

But critics have questioned the law’s value, including its lack of a provision to create a “do not e-mail” list similar to the national “do not call” list. And the law has little ability to stop some of the most notorious sources of unwanted e-mail. Overseas spammers are almost impossible to go after, for example.

CAN-SPAM would prove most effective if the majority of spam held true to the “spam kingpin” theory , said John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This theory maintains that a few dozen perpetrators in the United States are responsible for most commercial spam. But even if U.S. spammers were targeted, spammers could easily move overseas.

“Even if that’s right and people just push to Kuala Lumpur to send their spam, then what have you accomplished?” Palfrey said. “It’s very unlikely to be a U.S. federal law that solves this problem, in any event. I don’t know anybody who thinks CAN-SPAM is going to work.”

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham took issue with the Pew study's conclusions, pointing out that CAN-SPAM was barely enacted when Pew began collecting data in February.

He said the service had witnessed dramatic reductions in spam sent to its members since the law went into effect, a sign that its use in litigation against spammers was an effective tactic.

"Give it time to breathe," Graham said. "We know ... that we're making real progress in the war against spammers."

Users still open it
Nor does the new law have a solution for virus spam, a major problem that has reached critical mass since the previous Pew survey last June, when about a third of e-mail users said spam made their time online annoying or unpleasant. 

Spam primerRather than a commercial solicitation, these e-mails contain small computer viruses or worms that unsuspecting users can activate. Since last summer, inboxes have been flooded with e-mails containing worms such as Sobig and Mydoom, which spread rapidly and were unleashed in successive waves, each one spreading millions more e-mails. In January, Mydoom became the fastest spreading worm ever.

The one upside to CAN-SPAM, Rainie said, is that it gave computer firms a better sense of how much spam came from legitimate senders. The remaining spam not in compliance with the new rules can be clearly detected. “We’ve now got a decent reading about how many people don’t want to play by the rules,” Rainie said.

On the other hand, the recent flood of virus mails may finally have initiated a bit of a social backlash against unwary e-mail users who open worm-laden e-mails –- which then use the victim’s computer to send hundreds more mails -- and those users who continue to respond to unsolicited sales pitches.

Still, 5 percent of people responded to those solicitations, according to the Pew data, which sampled 2,204 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.  That means some six million people could be buying items advertised with spam, Rainie said, which is more than enough to make it an effective business model for spammers.

“You only need an infinitesimal fraction of these e-mail recipients to respond and you’ve made your money,” he noted. “Even with all the commotion about this … people are still opening these things and responding to these things, even though the dangers are high.”

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