Scientific American sells customers’ addresses!

I dislike paperwork, despise advertising, hate spam, and loathe companies trading addresses without my consent, which is why I’m seriously pissed off after finding a “special” offer piece of snail mail from New Scientist in my mail box this evening.

The address on the spam was wrong, in two ways: It contained the residence name where the street name should be (a mistake I commonly made after moving here), and it was missing the last letter of the residence name. Both of these errors appeared on the letter from New Scientist, and in an email from Scientific American regarding a missing issue. There’s no doubt: Scientific American is selling their customers’ addresses!

I got a subscription which is not yet expired, but I’m not interested in continuing a business relationship with such an immoral company. I’m going to ask them to terminate the subscription and send me a check for the rest of the issues, and then I never want to hear from them again.

Update: Here’s the body of the reply from Scientific American:

We are in receipt of your complaint of July 23, 2007, regarding the sale of your name to New Scientist for promotional mailings. On all of our subscription order forms, we do make mention of the fact that we may share your name with third parties, and offer you the option of “opting-out” and denying that your name be disclosed. According to our records, you did not make that selection when you originally ordered your subscription.

As per your request, we are canceling your subscription and mailing you a refund check for all issues not mailed. Please accept our apologies for the confusion.

I always opt out on these things, but there’s no way to prove that three years after the fact. They don’t say whether the option is on the form, just that it’s mentioned & offered. I’m disappointed that this isn’t more of an issue.

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Spam punishment calculation

When a spammer is caught and convicted, how should you calculate the punishment? Here are a few factors to take into consideration:

  • These people are doing it for personal gain.
  • They need to know more about IT than the average person. To earn money from it, they probably have to know a lot more.
  • They don’t care who is at the other end: Joe Sixpack, Richard Stallman, Kofi Annan, or a slum charity with dial up and a 386.

These persons are as far as I can tell willfully imposing time and money costs on other people for personal gain, and there is no reason to judge them lightly.

The cost of spam deserves its own list:

  • At the very least, software must be developed continuously to keep up with the spammers’ methods. This takes time and money.
  • False negatives have to be handled by the end user, by “cleaning” the inbox, and reporting the negatives (if possible). This takes time, which often implies money.
  • False positives also have to be handled by the end user, but can have very serious effects if it’s not done often and correctly.
  • The parable of the broken window applies to spam, in that it doesn’t create wealth, but drains it to keep email usable.

So how do we calculate punishment for spammers? Here are my two cents: All that they ever earned by spamming, multiplied by some factor to keep it scary enough financially. On top of that, add jail time according to this simple formula:
Average time (for developers and end users) to handle one spam email times number of emails = Time in jail.

Of course, since spammers send billions of emails, jail time would probably be measured in lifetimes. But consider that we’re wasting the best (or at least most productive) years of our lives handling this garbage, and that the socio-economic impact is comparable to bombing a few towns every few weeks (I’d love to see a complete cost calculation for spam, but it’s probably too international and dispersed to be estimated reliably).

This post was based on the following “axioms”:

  • “Spam” refers to any unsolicited email, useful only to a small minority of recipients.
  • Handling spam, like any other email, takes time.
  • Because of the sheer volume of spam vs. solicited email, it is necessary to keep the filters’ efficiency high, even as spammers are developing new ways to circumvent them.
  • Spamming is not freedom of speech. They wouldn’t be sent if they had a cost comparable to snail mail.