Will spam die in 2020?

Bill Gates promised 16 years ago that the spam problem would be “solved” by 2006.

As we begin the year 2020, the pandemic of unwanted advertising is not only still a problem on email, but we’re experiencing an epidemic of robocalls, robotexts, social spam and “review spam” as well. Spam is both growing and spreading.

The good news is that new efforts are creating new hope for Gates’ predicted end of spam.

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The trouble with spam

Email is still the world’s biggest platform for spam. Half the world’s population uses email. And more than half of all email is spam. The good news is that the figure is dropping the percentage of email that was spam peaked in 2012 at 69 percent.

Calls are another huge problem. The FTC got 5.7 million complaints about robocalls and live spam phone calls last year.

In the past couple of years, a pandemic of Chinese-language robocalls has plagued Americans. If you don’t speak Mandarin (which most of the victims don’t), you won’t know that these recorded calls are hawking scams like lower credit card rates or cheap health insurance. The calls target Chinese-speaking immigrants. Some claim to be from the Chinese consulate and say that the victim has a package at the embassy or is in trouble with Chinese authorities. If you bite, a live operator will try to con you out of your bank account information.

Clearly email and phone spam are a big problem. But increasingly, so is text messaging, online review, social media and other forms of spam.

A new push to ‘solve’ spam

A bipartisan bill called the TRACED act passed in Congress last week. The president is expected to sign it shortly. The bill, which stands for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement Act, aims to fully ban robocalls. It increases fines for offenders ($10,000 per call!), requires carriers to block robocalls, bans carriers from charging customers for anti-robocall services and takes other anti-robocall action.

The law will take months to go into effect. But it attempts to address not only “spam” calls but also “scam calls” — a problem that reportedly grew by 18 percent this year and affected 43 million Americans last year and cost more than $10 billion.

Carriers are also taking action. The FCC this year allowed carriers to automatically enroll customers in robocall-blocking services. But these services affect only customers on some carriers with the right phones. One such service is Verizon’s Call Filter, which has a free and paid version. The app notifies users of potential spam calls, and even blocks some calls. (Independent apps include Nomorobo, Robokiller and YouMail.)

AT&T and T-Mobile announced in August a collaboration to protect customers from robocalls. All the carrier efforts are using a set of standards called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs).

Google’s MVNO, called Google Fi, rolled out this month a new spam call feature that warns users during incoming calls about suspected spam calls. Fi famously and automatically performs calls via Wi-Fi, as well as via three US carriers. That spam-call warning works on all channels, including W-iFi.

Smartphone makers are helping as well. Google’s Pixel 4 will now automatically screen not only calls but Duo videos.

You can also sign up for the FTC’s Do Not Call registry.

Carriers are also trying to stop robotexts — automated spam text messages. T-Mobile says they reached a peak this year of blocking a million robotexts per day. Something like three percent of all SMS messages are spam.

AI is one of the most promising technologies for reducing spam. Google, for example, uses machine learning algorithms to block 10 million spam emails per minute aimed at the accounts of some 1.5 billion Gmail users. The company started using this year a new TensorFlow Machine Learning library to weed out spam hidden in images. The company claims it stops 99 percent of incoming spam.

Google rolled out last month a text-spam feature called “Verified SMS.” The idea is to give blue checkmark-type verification icons on texts that come from verified businesses.

How spam warps human communication

What’s wrong with Spam, anyway? By definition, Spam is highly un-targeted advertising sent without permission. It annoys everyone and wastes time.

But the real problem with Spam happens at the cultural level. The negative qualities of Spam cause everyone to abandon superior communications media and embrace inferior ones.

Here’s what I mean. The two greatest person-to-person communications media ever created are email and phone calls. And spam degrades both.

Email is great because it’s cross platform, open and everybody’s got it. It’s also asynchronous. You have control over which messages you open, when you open them and in what order. Email is searchable, and can convey long messages and arbitrary attachments.

But people are abandoning or ignoring email in favor of proprietary walled gardens like Slack, messaging platforms like WhatsApp and texting — in part because of spam.

Phone calls are great, too. Before spam calls and robocalls, you used to be able to just call someone and they would answer. Your phone would ring, and it was almost always someone you wanted or needed to talk to. Everyone answered the phone, and you could have quick, real-time conversations.

Now, thanks to phone spam, some 92 percent of people surveyed by ZipWhip say they ignore calls from unknown callers. Because of spam, phone calls have become unreliable and asynchronous, where people are more likely to interact via voicemail than live calls.

For a while, people increasingly replaced both emails and phone calls with texting, where there was little spam and where you could see who the sender was.

But texting is a lousy form of communication. Until recently, you couldn’t do it on a desktop. Most people still text using a phone on a tiny onscreen keyboard.

Texting takes away the power and freedom of the recipient to decide the order and timing of responses. And it’s lower-quality communication than phone calls, which convey tone and emotion in a way that improves conversation.

The number of “channels” for person-to-person communication has exploded in the past 20 years. And yet communicating with people has become much harder than it used to be, largely because of spam.

Despite all the new, aggressive action against spam, it’s unlikely that spam will die in 2020. What Bill Gates didn’t account for 16 years ago was that new anti-spam measures are always met with new spam approaches. It’s an arms race.

It’s also clear that the most effective method, which is to use AI to choose what’s spam and what isn’t, isn’t quite smart enough for the tasks. AI still lets spam through, and still marks good email as spam.

Still, progress is progress. The best-case scenario is probably that spam is suppressed enough to enable a resurgence in the use of the high-quality open media of email and phone calls and a reduction in the use of low-quality and closed media.

What do you think? Email me.

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