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Library - Classifying Spam as Theft-of-Service
by Randolf Richardson, August 21st, 2004

The classification of Spam as a form of Theft-of-Service is obvious to the seasoned spam-fighter, but for those whom this classification may not be immediately apparent, perhaps my perspective will help them to understand why this classification is justified...

If I had to deal with 10,000 marketers using the same (or at least very similar) methods, then I'd be stuck having to deal with at least 10,000 eMail messages at some time, the overwhelmingly vast majority of which I'm probably not interested in anyway (I'm not interested in any of the spam I currently get).

Let's assume these 10,000 marketers each send only one eMail message to me throughout the period of one month, which works out to approximately 333 messages in just one day (10,000 eMails / 30 days), and each message has the following properties:

  1. Average size of each message is at least 5k (nearly all spam I've received without any graphics files attached is larger than that).
  2. Roughly 90% of all these messages requires a minimum of 10 seconds of my time to determine if it's legitimate before deciding what to do with it (e.g., before deleting it I report each junk eMail message to DNSBLs such as SpamCop.Net, but I won't include the time for this in my estimates since it's not what most users normally do).  Some messages require more of my time, while others require very little, so I'll just assume the overall average is roughly 10 seconds per message.

So, with 10,000 eMails at 5k each, the amount of bandwidth consumed per month works out to roughly 50 GigaBytes (10,000 eMails X 5,120 bytes = 51,200,000 bytes) just for my eMail, and because some ISPs enforce "bandwidth caps" (internet data transfer size limits) this actually puts the user at risk of either getting cut off once their limits are reached, or getting billed for extra bandwidth consumption (directly and/or indirectly).  Plus, for a user relying on a dial-up service, this would mean that downloading eMail is an even bigger chore because it would consume a lot of their online time (many dial-up ISPs also limit the amount of time their users can be connected, regardless of what they use that time for).

As for time, almost 1 hour per day is required (333 eMails X 10 seconds = 3,330 seconds, or 55 minutes and 30 seconds).  At my hourly billing rate of CAD$150.00/hour, roughly CAD$4,500.00 of billable time is lost every month ($150/hour X 30 hours = $4,500) just for dealing with eMails that I never requested in the first place.  Over the period of one year, a total of 600 GigaBytes of bandwidth (50 GBs X 12 months = 600 GBs) and CAD$54,000 of annual billable time ($4,500 X 12 months = $54,000) is wasted on spam.

Even if I could deal with each eMail in 2 seconds time instead of 10, the amount of billable time lost would still come to a total of CAD$10,800 ($54,000 / 5 = $10,800), but that doesn't consider the time required to download all this eMail plus other factors such as additional maintenance (e.g., extra disk defragmentations, hardware that breaks down sooner due to extra use, higher electric bills due to the computer consuming more power for longer usage times and more hard disk activity, etc.), which I've intentionally left out of these equations.

For someone else who does my type of work but has a lower billing rate of $75.00 per hour, their billable time is actually more valuable to themselves because they have to work longer to earn their living; if you divide the yearly billable amounts by half you'll see that a loss of $27,000 per year, at a rate of 10 seconds per eMail (or $5,400 lost per year at a rate of 2 seconds per eMail), is still significant.

Now, let's consider a small ISP providing connectivity to 1,000 users:  The combined total billable time lost by all its users annually could be somewhere between $5,400,000 and $54,000,000 with a grand total of 600 TeraBytes (600,000 GigaBytes) of bandwidth wasted by 10,000,000 eMail messages (10,000 eMails X 1,000 users).  Add to that the overall bandwidth waste, which if it was only $1 per GigaByte, works out to a cost to the ISP of $600,000 per year.  To stay in business, the ISP would obviously have to factor this cost in to the price they charge their customers regardless of flat-rate or individually-costed pricing plans (most ISPs these days seem to use flat-rate monthly billing in their business models, with "overage charges" that come into effect only after exceeding arbitrary maximum usage limits), which means that the overall costs to consumers are far greater than they otherwise would be.

So, the way I see it, spam (a.k.a., "junk eMail") is correctly classified as Theft-of-Service.  It also often causes business interference, and those who are actively fighting spam on a daily basis are actually protecting all internet users from this counter-productive criminal activity.

Copyright © 2004 by Randolf Richardson,
Inter-Corporate Computer & Network Services, Inc.
Greater Vancouver, Beautiful British Columbia, Canada

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