April 20, 2014

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Targeted political spam

I’ve complained about spammers before, but this one is new. I recently received a spam that supports the case of Michael Skelly for Congress, saying negative things about incumbent John Culberson. What’s interesting: this is my home precinct. These people are actually competing for my vote. This leads to the question: how on earth did the Skelly people manage to map my work email address to my home mailing address? Is there a database out there that they used? Maybe they just spammed everybody at my employer, since this particular Congressional district includes our campus; all of our students, in our dorms, who are registered locally will be voting in this particular race.

Part of me wants to bias my voting decision against the idiot candidate who thought that email marketing was a good way to efficiently reach voters. Sadly, that decision will have to be based on more substantial issues, like which candidate I think will perform better in Congress. Instead, I’m going to direct my fire at VerticalResponse, the service provider who the Skelly campaign used to send me the spam. According to their anti-spam policy,

VerticalResponse has no tolerance for the sending of spam and unsolicited mail, and we prohibit the use of third-party, purchased, rented, or harvested mailing lists. Any customer found using VerticalResponse to send such mail is banned from the use of our service.

VerticalResponse takes several steps to keep abuse to a minimum. Among other things, we:

- Interview new clients about both the origins of their mailing lists and their marketing practices. Clients who do not meet our standards are not allowed to use the VerticalResponse service.

- Read most emails before they can go out the door. Email sent through our system goes to a staging area where it is looked over by a member of the VerticalResponse staff. If we have any concerns, the mailing is stopped and we contact the client.

Really? I find that impossible to believe. In what way could any reasonable human have decided that a blob of partisan political attack messaging being delivered to what we can only presume is a non-trivial mailing list is, in any way, anything other than gratuitous spam? For the record, I have never supported either the Democratic or Republican parties financially. I am not a member of either party. The only possible way my email address could have been used is that it was either harvested in bulk, along with other Rice email addresses, or perhaps more charitably, if somebody thought “ahh, that Prof. Wallach seems like he’d be interested political propaganda from our party and/or candidate.” Neither one would appear to be compatible with VerticalResponse’s stated anti-spam policies.

I’ll also note that, while VerticalResponse provides a one-click way for me to opt out of this particular spam source, they provide no way for me to opt out of any other future source or otherwise specify any sort of policy from my end. There’s no way, short of training my spam filter, for me to say “I never want to receive email from VerticalResponse, ever again.” Surely, I figured, I can’t be the first person to complain about them, yet a Google search on any of the usual terms didn’t find anybody else complaining like this.

Instead, I started digging through my historical email. It appears that there have been a handful of VerticalResponse “campaigns” that I considered to be non-spam and have kept. One series of non-spam messages were from a house builder who I thought I might want to use at one point. Another was an update notice for a web service that I use. Historically, I’ve reported one other spam to them, via their abuse email address. They stated, in response, that they removed me from that particular mailing list and would investigate the infraction. I received no subsequent email about the resolution of that case.

Of course, that’s far from everything. Generally, when I get these things, I generally just click the “unsubscribe” link, retrain my spam filter, and move on with life. I haven’t kept count of how many such spams I’ve treated this way.

I did a similar search through my old mail for ConstantContact, one of VerticalResponse’s competitors. I found not a single email, from them to me, that I had kept, although several were forwarded to mailing lists that I archive, so those I kept. I have no records of having ever contacted their abuse department.

Does this mean that one vendor is more spammy than the other, does it mean that one vendor just has more market share than the other, or does it mean that my spam filter is removing more of this stuff before I have to look at it? It’s hard to say without more data.

Okay, big policy question: given that political campaigns and everybody else on the marketing side of the equation deeply loves the idea of targeted email marketing campaigns, how should we accommodate them? Should they be required to provide better proof to to firms like VerticalResponse or ConstantContact that their email addresses were harvested in some proper fashion? How on earth could they actually do such a thing? Short of having users opt-in directly at the email distribution service, everything else boils down to the email service taking the marketer at their word, which seems about as likely to be true as those “no documentation required” mortgages.

Maybe the answer is for “ethical” email distributors to pay fees, per message, perhaps as a government tax. Call it “spam postage”, and tweak the fee structure so the sender ends up paying more money when the recipient hit the “unsubscribe” or “abuse” button. First off, by adding a real monetary expense to the process, senders might be incentivized to reduce their mailing lists. The penalties incentivize them to cull their lists down to their true supporters. The only problem with a structure like this is that it tends to push email marketers away from “ethical” email distribution services and toward either do-it-yourself solutions or toward shady vendors who don’t charge the postage fees. (And, we all know that the real-money postage costs of physical mail do seemingly little to deter all the paper spam that we receive.)

For better or for worse, we’ll never get rid of email spam. Maybe we can filter out recurring messages from Nigerian dictators or overseas pharmacies, but no training-based spam filter is going to be able to learn every new thing to come down the block when it’s still new. The only thing that will ever truly work is if and when people just stop paying attention.

[Sidebar: so how should a political campaign effectively reach people like me to convey their message? I tend to go out and surf their web sites, read their policy papers, and I pay attention to the endorsements of newspapers, bloggers, and others who I trust. For the "down-ballot" races, I tend to spend some quality time with the non-partisan League of Women Voters guide. The LWV asks candidates to respond to a variety of relevant questions, but space constraints limit the answers. An online version could presumably give the candidates space to really explain their positions (and/or firmly demonstrate their lack of clue). At the end of all that, I make a cheat sheet with my favorite candidates and bring it with me to the polls.]

Comments

  1. Wirehead says:

    So the McCain campaign thinks that I’m one of my parents at their old address in Ohio. So I get spam from them and the GOP party. And I’m getting some spam from a few candidates in my parent’s new place near Sacramento.

    Annoying either way.

  2. Gary McGath says:

    The creation of a spam tax would make spam valuable to the government. This means that (1) it would encourage spamming, provided the senders paid the tax and (2) it would expand the definition of spam as broadly as it possibly could, very likely including small non-spam mailing lists.

    In practice, the tax would penalize non-spammers, while spammers just ignored it.

  3. mtl says:

    PBS gives air time to down-ticket candidates for the higher-profile races in my town. At times, informal debates on local politics are hosted. It’s a good way to quickly compare the field, esp. for offices where you have several hopeful contenders.

  4. Richard Huffaker says:

    I’m currently the Education & Training Manager at VerticalResponse, but was previously the Manager of our Policy Enforcement group, so I wanted to jump in here to comment.

    I cannot state strongly enough that we do take our anti-spam policy extremely seriously. Under no circumstances do we look the other way to allow people or companies to send out unsolicited mail. We are constantly fighting to keep spam off our network, as are most other legitimate Email Service Providers, and there is nothing that I, or the members of our abuse team, find more disappointing or frustrating then seeing unwanted email go out through our system. I mean this very sincerely, as it was something that was on my mind 24 hours day / 7 days a week when I ran our policy enforcement team.

    I can assure you that only a very, very small percentage of our clients send out unsolicited email, and we take action with all those who do. It doesn’t just take a direct complaint to lead to our taking action, either. We have feedback loops setup with pretty much all the Internet Service Providers – so when someone clicks the spam button in their own account in regards to an email sent by one of our clients, we usually hear about it.

    From what I can see, action is already being taken against the account in question based on a complaint we received yesterday. I promise that we will make sure this sort of thing does not continue.

    Richard Huffaker
    VerticalResponse

  5. brent says:

    Who gets spam these days… dude… http://mail.google.com. They do hosting for companies too you know.

    Job done.

    The trouble with charging people for being on email lists is that, like you said, there are plenty of lists that you enjoy being on – and you want to make the transaction as cheap as possible – that the only reason to stay on the list is interest and the only reason to go off it is disinterest.

    I don’t understand why people are so caught up on spam – isn’t this basically a solved problem now? Or is there still spam floating around in the non-gmail world?

  6. Jim Lyon says:

    Vertical Resonse, Constant Contact and others of their ilk always talk about how hard they work to keep from sending unwanted email. It’s hard to take them seriously when they decline to take very simple steps that are nearly foolproof in determining which of their customers are using harvested lists.

    Mr. Huffaker, why don’t you just create a few honey pot email addresses and arrange for them to get widely harvested? Then, when you get an order from a customer whose address list includes any of these addresses, just fire the customer? It would cost you nothing, except for the lost revenue from customers that you profess to not want, and would be almost 100% effective.

    While you’re at it, how about offering the public the ability to opt out of all mailings that you will ever do? You could similarly rate your customers by the proportion of their targets that have pre-opted out.

  7. Ralph says:

    Howdy,
    You say “I find that impossible to believe. In what way could any reasonable human have decided that a blob of partisan political attack messaging being delivered to what we can only presume is a non-trivial mailing list is, in any way, anything other than gratuitous spam?”
    First, why do you end with a question mark? Second, I am a reasonable person and I don’t think what you got was gratuitous spam. From the first time I heard the term spam in reference to emails, I have seen it defined as unsolicited COMMERCIAL email. Political speech is a whole other category. I get emails from candidates in several parties in local races. I have not signed up for any lists, and most of them have no effect on how I will vote. But, I would not want any regulation on what they send out. I did not look up either of your local candidates to see if I would support the person who sent you the email, because it does not matter if I agree with them politically. They have a right to be heard, and I think you are off base in your complaint on this one.
    Good day,
    Ralph

    • Rich Kulawiec says:

      The proper definition of spam is — as it has been for decades — “unsolicited bulk email”, or UBE. Note that this definition was selected, among other reasons, because it’s content-neutral. It thus deliberately encompasses charity spam, religious spam, political spam, etc. — even null spam, that is, messages with tno content. There have been various attempts to redefine spam over the years , mostly initiated by spammers who have repeatedly tried (and failed) to redefinie spam as “that which we do not do”.

  8. Ralph says:

    Hello again,
    Never mind about the question mark. I read that quote as one long sentence, but I see why the question mark is there. I still say your email was not spam and stand behind everything else.
    Good day,
    Ralph

  9. Anonymous says:

    Spam is unsolicited bulk email.

    The issue is consent, not content. Commercial, political, religious, artistic — it doesn’t matter. Sending email is largely at the recipient’s expense, since processing time, disk space, and human attention are all not free. Therefore, sending bulk email without the recipient’s consent is stealing, just like unsolicited fax.

  10. Chuck says:

    There are still people who don’t know why spam is a problem? I received nearly 50,000 bogus emails in 2005. Absolutely insane. The flood caused me to miss messages sent directly to me from friends, colleagues, and family. So I look like a total idiot or flake because I couldn’t respond in a timely way. I had to abandon that email address and tell everyone my new one.

    Where is the evidence that the spam recipient consented?

  11. Anonymous says:

    “given that political campaigns and everybody else on the marketing side of the equation deeply loves the idea of targeted email marketing campaigns, how should we accommodate them?”

    Already taken care of. I have it on good authority that the devil himself is keeping a special place warm for them somewhere down there. :)

  12. Andrew S says:

    DId you put your email address on your voter registration card? I did it out of curiosity just to see what i’d end up with (and of course, i use a unique address so i can track where the address gets used).

    Vertical Response and Constant Contact have good reputations but even the best mass email providers can’t be 100% spam free as long as they allow their customers to generate the lists of emails.

  13. dwallach says:

    I did not put my email anywhere on my voter registration card.

    Incidentally, I just received another spam from the same candidate using iContact, which doesn’t even have a “spam” button anywhere in the email. You have to go to their home page to find out that they have ‘abuse@icontact.com’ for handling these things.

    And, again just like VerticalResponse, nowhere is there a way that I can specify a global policy with respect to iContact and future “campaigns.”

  14. Rich Kulawiec says:

    There’s an entire “industry” of spammers-for-hire, of which Vertical Response and Constant Contact are two long-time, well-known members. I recommend blacklisting them permanently and moving on, keeping in mind the adage that there is no such thing as an ex-spammer.