What is it?
It's unwanted email. The electronic form of the postal junk mail you receive every morning.
Why should I care? I just chuck my junk mail in the bin every morning - surely doing that to emails is even easier?
It's not easier if you're getting 10 spam mails for every good email you receive. It's a problem because it clogs up mail servers and ISPs and gets in the way of genuine internet traffic. Also companies have started to realise it is costing them money in lost man hours - some estimate as much as £3bn a year in the UK alone.
But I've signed up for lots of mailing lists in my time and I'm not sure that I haven't asked for these services.
Not the ones we're talking about here. Real spam isn't Amazon emailing you about their latest offers because you forgot to tick the "don't send me mail" box when you bought a book. Spam is completely unsolicited mail, ranging from adverts for Viagra and porn sites to offers of cheap loans and murky pyramid-type schemes.
OK, I'll just reply to the people sending me mail, and tell them to stop. Problem solved. Right?
Wrong. That's exactly what you cannot do. Spammers use computer programs to invent likely email addresses to send material to. Once you respond, they see that as confirmation your address exists. They can then get more money selling your name on to other spammers. Just watch the mail pile in.
My ISP will help me, won't it?
Maybe. Most email providers give a basic level of spam protection to users on request but the software is by no means foolproof. Its scans for the proliferation of words such as "sex" or "loans" in an email and blocks those which exceed a certain level. Obviously a lot of spam is missed and genuine emails can easily be blocked. At the start of January AOL caused a furore by blocking 6,000 mails from Harvard University to prospective students telling them they had been accepted on their courses. AOL's software thought the emails were spam.
OK, OK, so that doesn't work. Do I not have any legal protection?
The European Union is putting through legislation at the moment aimed at making it easier to combat spam. This may force countries to adopt laws ensuring dot-coms can't email customers without their explicit, positive assent. However, that may not help either.
Why ever not?
Most spam comes from outside of the EU, so won't be bound by our laws. In addition, a large proportion of spam comes from fraudsters looking for a quick buck. They are unlikely to care about the finer points of European data protection legislation either way.
So what can I do?
Try using a creative email address - one that a name-generating program would be unlikely to come up with. And don't use chat rooms where other users can see your address. If you're unsure about the provenance of a website then don't give it your email address.
I'm already getting lots of spam - can I do anything about it now?
There are more sophisticated anti-spam programs out there. Try using one or signing up with an ISP that offers the service. Also you could lobby your ISP to block emails from insecure servers that try to mask their origin. Anti-spam company Brightmail reckons these servers account for 50 per cent of spam.
And why call it spam?
Ask a Monty Python aficionado.
From the silicon.com archive:
AOL stamps on students' hopes and dreams
Spam costs UK £3bn a year
Sainsbury's says 'no spam' this Christmas
3 cheers (and a couple of jeers) for email@30
Cookies remain but spam struck off the menu
Brussels starts meting out spam laws
An organisation dedicated to listing and blocking the originators of spam: http://www.spews.org/