UBE:  A Dangerous Snare, a Fatal Delusion

A commentary on The "Nadine" Story by Michael Rathbun.  Last updated:  28-Aug-2007 14:22

Based on the many hours of consulting time I have spent with a number of Internet-based businesses, I believe that not all (or even most) of the players in the Story of Nadine are ethically challenged.  Indeed I will hazard a guess that many of the responsible parties are puzzled that anyone seriously considers unsolicited broadcast email (UBE) to be an ethical issue at all.

Many other web sites explain in detail why UBE is bad for the recipients and their providers.  The technical and economic bases that make UBE an ethical issue are touched upon in my "Permission" article.

Ignorance of the true nature of UBE and of the attitudes people have toward it is a harmful, potentially fatal condition for a legitimate business.  The focus of this essay is on the harm done to the sender:  where it comes from and how to guard against it.

First Principles

One theme I frequently emphasize when speaking to business groups or providing business consulting services is this:

If you are an experienced and successful business person who is now immigrating to the New World of the Internet, beware!  Nearly everything you think you know is dangerously wrong.

Principles and practices that have served you well in the "real" world can and do become the basis of fatal mistakes for businesses that depend upon the Internet.  Things that have a familiar look and feel can behave in startling and unexpected ways if they are treated in the same way as their apparent real-world counterparts are treated.

This is most especially the case with email broadcasting.

Economic Span of Control

Marketers and advertisers migrating to the Internet are accustomed to a world in which they subsidize the media that they employ, and wherein consequently they have a great deal of influence and control.  On the Internet they frequently bring this mindset with them, and exhibit the attitude that people will have to tolerate their activities because they (the advertisers) are paying for the medium, just as they pay for television shows or magazines or radio programs.

This is a potentially fatal misconception.  As far as email broadcasting is concerned, the sender's resources subsidize only the sender's immediate providers.  They certainly do not in any way pay for the average recipient's Internet services, or for any significant portion of the content that such a user may consider valuable.  As a result, an advertiser's influence generally stops at the borders of its providers' networks.

Individual Span of Control

In the traditional broadcasting world, consumers tolerate advertising because, in general, they have no choice.  At best they can switch TV channels, discard direct mail unread or turn down the radio volume.  It is beyond their power to make advertising stop by any means other than ceasing to use the medium.  They have no hope of persuading station management to stop selling advertising -- if there are no ads then there will be no station.

Such is not the case on the Internet, however.  Recipients of unwanted advertising and the companies that provide them services have found that the very structure of the Internet itself creates a number of avenues of response to what they may perceive as abuse of their private property.  It is most important to remember that they, the recipients, are the sole judges of what is wanted or unwanted, welcome or abusive.


A classic short story, Eric Frank Russell's "And Then There Were None" (1951) describes an anarchistic society governed by the principle "Freedom - I Won't".  The society works because every individual has the freedom to say "I won't" when presented with some demand from another individual, even if that demand is for satisfaction of an obligation incurred by the first individual.  Although this means that anybody is free to default on his or her obligations to others, it also means that the others are likewise free to say "I Won't" -- to shun the defaulter, to decline to cooperate.

The Internet appears to be the first sizable human society that actually works on the "F-IW" principle.  The socioeconomic structure of the Internet is well summed up in a comment by the character Masahiko in William Gibson's novel Idoru:

"There are no laws here, only agreements."

Subject only to the agreements and contracts that an Internet entity has with its providers and customers, that entity is absolutely sovereign within its own domain.  Service providers and system administrators are completely free to decide to accept or reject any network traffic they choose; they simply must accept whatever reactions such decisions may evoke from those with whom they have agreements.

An individual consumer's service providers have absolutely no economic incentive to provide transit and storage for advertising, especially advertising delivered by email.  On the contrary, many providers have discovered that swift remedial reaction to consumer complaints about unwanted communications can both increase customer loyalty and decrease operating costs.  As a result, the unwritten "I will carry your traffic if you will carry mine" agreement is subject to re-evaluation, with the possible conclusion

"I don't care whether you carry my traffic or not, so I won't carry yours."

And there are many ways to say "I Won't".

Sudden Death:  Total Disconnection

One significant instrument of control that the individual possesses on the Internet is that of invoking the Acceptable Use Policy of the sender's service provider.  More than one earnest and sincere email broadcaster has found itself suddenly isolated from the rest of the world because all service was abruptly terminated as a result of complaints by recipients to the provider's Policy Enforcement ("abuse") department.

Historically, some providers that had no AUP (or declined to enforce their AUP) have found themselves and their customers isolated from substantial portions of the Internet.  When a sufficient number of significant Internet entities say "I won't" to another entity, that entity's ability to attract and keep customers is significantly impaired, perhaps to the point of bankruptcy.

Major Trauma:  Distributed Blocking Lists

Another approach ISPs and business users adopt to say "I Won't" to unwanted email influx is to subscribe to one or more externally administered blocking lists.  The primordial example of this is the MAPS RBL, a list of addresses on the Internet that the RBL maintainers have determined that they themselves do not wish to receive email from.  Many system administrators have decided to give the MAPS opinions full local faith and credence, and will likewise refuse to talk to systems listed on the RBL or the other lists maintained by MAPS.  A number of other distributed blocking lists are in operation as of the date of this writing, notably the highly-recommended Spamhaus family of lists.

The important thing about a Distributed Blocking List to an email broadcaster is this:  if you are listed on it, you have effectively ceased to exist as far as any subscriber to that list is concerned.  If a list has ten thousand subscribers, then in the space of a few seconds they all with one voice say to you "I Won't", and you become invisible -- an ineffectual ghost -- to ten thousand email servers and all of the individuals who receive email through them.

But worse things than that can happen.

A Thousand Cuts:  Local Blocking Lists

Some providers have invested in systems that give individuals some measure of control over what email they will receive.  Some providers also have devoted staff resources to identify and block sources of unwanted email traffic.  Commonly, staff will take swift action by adding apparent sources of unwanted email to the block list on the local email server and/or to the system that their users can employ to bar unwanted messages.  This may happen because they have received customer complaints, or simply because they notice an unusual volume of messages from a single source.

And, because it's a lot less work to determine that example.com is currently a source of unwanted email than it is to determine that example.com is no longer a source of unwanted email, once it is added to a local blocking list example.com tends to stay there.  For years.

Of the three instrumentalities for denying service to email broadcasters this last one is, in the long run, the greatest woe.  If your Network Service Provider threatens to discontinue service, you can either change your behavior or hope to find another provider.  If you are listed by MAPS, Spamhaus or another major list, you can hope to discover this fact, contact them, and remedy that condition.  But if fifty thousand mail administrators each decide to drop you into a deny list, what hope have you short of death and reincarnation?  How can you even know, other than by the fact that as time passes ever more and more of your delivery attempts are rejected?  And how will you ever persuade all those administrators that you have reformed?

And if twenty million individual users have configured their email accounts to say "I Won't" by silently flushing your email...

What To Do?

A cookbook of rules is less useful than the principles from which such rules may be derived.  Rather than prescribe this subscription confirmation mechanism or that list management rule, I propound a few short questions:
  1. How much economic harm is it reasonable for my firm to inflict on others in the course of business?  Is it ethically insignificant that the proprietor of a tiny consulting firm must spend a (non-billable) hour or two per week cleaning up unwanted email, some of which comes from my company?  What if the number of similarly affected people is many, many thousands rather than just one?  What if many of them have not just a few users, but tens of thousands?  What if they use the Internet to contact each other and devise a plan of action?  What if this has already happened?
  2. What will happen if millions of firms fail to adopt responsible practices?  There are tens of millions of small businesses in the United States alone.  If a tiny percentage of them begins to do indiscriminate mailings to unconfirmed lists, what chance will my own mailings stand of simply being delivered, let alone read?

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