Advertising on the Internet, or Why is Spam Bad ?

By Uri Raz

Advertising on the Internet

The Internet is a new medium, which allows people to communicate with other people across the world, and to pass & exchange information in large quantities in a short time.

Those abilities, combined with the low cost of communications over the internet, makes the Internet an appealing medium for advertisers, who seek to send their message to as large a number of people, in the shortest time, and for the lowest cost.

The basic problem with advertising on the Internet is the lack of knowledge on the side of advertisers on how the Internet works, and more specifically, with the way the costs of distributing information on the Internet is distribute between the companies & people who are connected to it.

The Internet is not a public resource - it's a collection of networks, some paid for and owned by companies, some paid for by various governments [e.g. computers & communication lines bought by tax money for universities], some paid for by private people [e.g. ISPs' equipment is paid for by the subscribers' fees, who also pay for their own computer & phone], glued together into an international network.

So when information flows across the internet from one place to another, the price of transferring the information is split across the originator of the information, the reciever of the information, and possibly one or more other parties who paid for the equipment used in between.

Therefore, two considerations must be taken before advertising on the 'Net :

1. Unauthorized use of private property is trespass. The use of the Internet's resources resources is a privilege given to people who pay for it and respect the ownership and rights of the people, companies, and governments who built up the Internet.

2. When advertising on the internet, care must be taken to avoid shifting the cost of the advertisement from the advertiser to others.

1. Advertising via email

This form of advertisement sounds very attractive - a message can be sent via email to thousands, and even millions, of people using simple equipment, in a short period of time, and for a very low price per address.

The problem with this form of advertisement is similar to those that arise with advertisement via junk faxing or telemarketing. The main problems are :

Therefore, advertising via email should be done if and only if the list of recepients is constructed is made up only from email addresses of people who have asked to receive advertisement, and can ask to be removed from the list at any time.

The construction of such a list is difficult. Though many sell huge lists of email addresses, or tools to build such lists, those email addresses do not belong to willing recepients, but rather of addresses collected from public repositories intended for other purposes. Those mailing list are in a sense analogous to the telephone directories - the list of phone numbers is made publicly available, but not for the convenience of telemarketing people.

[Note : I don't have researches to rely on, but, AFAIK, the response rate for those mailing lists is very low. Postmasterdirect, a famous opt-in emailer, claims to a response rate of 5%-15%. The response rate for unsolicited commercial bulk email is, as far as I can gather, well under 1%]

The only sure way to make a list of email addresses for advertisements is to advertise a product or a service in a legitimate way, and have an offer to subscribe to a mailing list relating to the product included in that advertisement. This mailing list would probably not include millions of people, but it's constructed of interested recepients only.

Some people who use bulk email to unwilling recepients claim that this method saves trees, attaching a green or environment friendly label to bulk e-mail. This lie is just an attempt to turn the discussion away from the real point, namely that those people's bulk e-mail is theft.

First, the argument implicitly claims bulk e-mail is the only alternative to bulk paper mail, which is not true - there are other legitimate and useful ways to advertise.

Second, paper is usually made from trees grown for the paper industry, and after a tree is cut down, a new one is planted to take it's place in the future. Recycled paper makes this process even friendlier.

Third, as far as the chemicals used in the paper production and printing, process this is an intentionally partial view - environmentally unfriendly chemicals are used regularily with computer equipments, such as CFCs for cleaning computer components and materials used to build up disks. Just think of all the metals, metal-oxides, plastics, silicates (which, like glass and in contrast to carbon based materials, are not biodegradable), etc dumped when a disk crashes on a mailserver overloaded with spam.

Fourth, there's a distinct difference between advertisements printed on paper and bulk e-mail - price. When bulk mail is sent, the advertiser would target the recipients in attempt to reduce costs. Someone who sends bulk e-mail has a negligible cost per recipient, so bulk e-mail is usually used to promote useless products (the profits from which would not cover advertisements on paper) and to dozens of millions of people (which stills costs very little).

A related issue is that a spammer would never distribute the spam's content on paper to begin with - the whole philosophy behind spam is to spread the message without having to pay for printing pamphlets, paying for stamps and envelopes, etc. Thus most (if not all) spams wouldn't have reached print in the first place, and no trees would have been cut down to begin with.

Another common claim is that bulk email is covered by free speech. This is another lie.

First, the first amendment reads : "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

That is, it gives no rights to commercial speech, which is what bulk e-mail usually contains.

Also, this gives no right to force somebody into listening - the right is for speech, and it is people's right to choose whether they'd like to listen or not. Spam forces people to read at least part of the message (e.g. it's subject), which is annoying at best.

Second, because the Internet is not a public resource and one has no right to invade into property of others in order to deliver a message.

Third, because the Internet is international, with parts of it being in countries were there is no right to free speech. Forcing the free speech rights into countries in which one is neither a citizen nor a resident is absurd, especially as some of those countries (regretfully) don't give their own citizens and residents such a right.

Reecommended reading :

  1. The AOL vs. Cyberpromo case

  2. "Intel scores in email suit", by Jim Hu, CNET

  3. The CompuServe vs. Cyber Promotions case

  4. Anti-spam laws in the united states

  5. The UK Data Protection Law

2. Advertisement via newsgroups and mailing lists

In this section I use the term mailing list to refer to a mailing list constructed as an alternative to a newsgroup, that is a forum in which people discuss a subject of interest.

Usenet (the newsgroups system) is a collection of news servers, which cooperate in order to distribute articles. Every party that wants to participate in usenet sets up a news servr, which talks to one or more other news servers. Users can post an article to a newsgroup available on his party's news server, and the article is distributed by 'flooding', that is every news server gives a copy of every new article it gets to all the news servers it talks to and which carry the newsgroup to which the article was posted to.

One of the implications of the way usenet works is that if somebody posts a message to a newsgroup, every news server in the world will have to pay with disk area to store the article and with communication lines time to copy and transmit the article to and from other news servers. The disk space and commincation lines time [called bandwidth] are, for the most part, not paid for by the person who posts the article.

Therefore, advertising via newsgroups suffers from the same basic problem as advertisement via email - the cost of the advertisement is shifted from the advertiser to other parties.

Yet, there is a difference. Users subscribe to mailing lists, and news servers carry newsgroups in order to get some content. In order to define what articles may be posted to a newsgroup / mailing list, each one has a charter which defines what article are appropriate for it.

If the charter allows for advertisements, and some do allow, under various constraints, then advertising by posting an advertisement article to that newsgroup / mailing list.

The points here is that the receiver has agreed, by reading the charter and carrying the newsgroup / subscribing to the mailing list, to receive advertisements, as long as they are posted according to the rules set up in the charter.

Anyway, advertisements to newsgroups should be on-topic for the newsgroup's subject, should be posted to a small number of newsgroups [5 newsgroups is a medium number, 10 newsgroups is the top], should not be reposted more then twice or thrice [preferably with at least a week's time between successive postings - articles dont usually expire in under a week anyway], and should be as short as possible [10 to 15 lines is reasonable, and should contain a pointer to further info, e.g. a web page]

Newsgroups charters can be found at

There is a special mailing list for junk mail - This is *the* mailing list for advertisements via email. People subscribe to it in order to get advertisement by email.

The following FAQs & web pages are recommended :

3. Advertising on the web

Advertising on the web is probably the best method to advertise on the Internet, as people visit sites & pages [and download whatever material is in them] only if they want to.

Banner ads are common on such free services, such as search engines and web based email accounts, which is a service to the Internet community, as those free services wouldnt exist without the income from those advertisements.

Advertising on the web can be cheap and easy. By subscribing to an ISP using an account that allows to create web pages [which costs a few dozens of bucks a month], one can bring up web pages, and promote them for free, or for low fees, using various techniques, submission of the web pages to search engines, banner exchange programs, and mentioning them in newsgroups as described above.

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