Spam Spam Spam Spam: The History of Spam

Quick pop in to the BBC Radio Manchester offices yesterday to comment on the 15-year anniversary of the term ‘spam’. It was coined on a user group to describe unsolicited marketing emails, and comes from the Monty Python sketch set in a cafe selling little else.

Yesterday was not the real anniversary of spam, which can apparently be traced back to a marketing executive for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) almost fifteen years earlier. And some would argue there’s a big difference between that sort of legitimate business contact and the rather more illegitimate content that floods our inboxes today.

The problems stems from one simple fact: being a spammer is profitable. So profitable that the rewards outweigh the small risk of prosecution and the ignominy of being one of the most hated people in the world – certainly during the period between 8:30 and 9:30 that so many working people spend clearing their inboxes of junk.

As I was leaving the studio, another guest made a suggestion: charge 0.1p for every email sent. The economics are vague but the idea makes sense. The only way to stop spam is to make it economically unrewarding to send. This is of course hugely complicated, and punishes everyone – not just the offenders. But it is quite possibly the only way to halt the problem: the spammers are as technologically capable as those fighting the problem, and there is no prospect of international law-enforcement tackling the issue any time soon.

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