Unwanted e-mail, or "spam," is choking the Internet and harming the productivity of Web users. Or is it?
While a number of activists and industry leaders are complaining about spam -- messages that seek to lure users to Web sites with promises of anything from virus protection to penis enlargement -- some recent research studies suggests the problem is not that big.
A study by the Washington-based Pew Internet and American Life Project found that, contrary to the popular perception, the vast majority of people who use e-mail at work say their message volume is manageable, and they are happy with the way e-mail helps them do their jobs.
The survey found that the average US work e-mailer spends about 30 minutes per day handling e-mail, with most receiving 10 or fewer e-mails and sending five or fewer.
"We began this survey expecting to find the beginning of a backlash against e-mail -- not just against spam, but also against the rising volume of all kinds of e-mail," said Deborah Fallows, author of the report.
"Instead, we found that most American workers are pleased with the role e-mail plays in their job, and we found almost zero evidence of disillusionment with e-mail."
Most people surveyed said they get little or no spam in their work-related e-mail accounts, although the study did not cover personal e-mail.
That research flies in the face of a growing belief that spam is mushrooming and threatening the productivity gains of the Internet.
"I think that survey's conclusions are highly suspect," said Ken McEldowney of the California-based group Consumer Action, one of a number of groups pressing for regulations and legislation to curb unwanted e-mail.
"I think many businesses have already gone to the time and effort and expense of installing software that would reject most spam. Just because individuals at those companies aren't receiving that much spam doesn't mean that the company isn't incurring a lot of expense."
The cost can be extensive for companies that install filters and other software to block certain types of spam,
One software firm, SurfControl, said its survey of IT professionals showed that 25 percent of all e-mail received by many US companies is spam and other electronic junk, and that blocking costs one dollar per message.
"Spam is a major concern for enterprises that are struggling to cope with unsolicited commercial and junk messages, often containing obscene or inappropriate content," said Kelly Haggerty, SurfControl's senior vice president of global product management.
"Spam, if left unmanaged, has the potential to increase a company's legal liability, reduce productivity, and negatively affect network resources."
"At best, spam is annoying; at worst, it's objectionable and a real threat to productivity and resources," said Steve Cullen, senior vice president at the software firm Symantec.
According to a Symantec survey, IT professionals are most concerned about pornographic or otherwise inappropriate spam content, while many said that it takes too much time to delete or unsubscribe to spam messages.
A Jupiter Research study predicts that by 2007 the average e-mail consumer will get more than 3,900 spam messages annually.
Since 2001, Jupiter found the average amount of spam received per user has increased from 3.7 to 6.2 per day. Over the next five years, the total number of unwanted e-mail messages sent will hit 645 billion.
Jupiter analyst Jared Blank said this is mainly an annoyance for consumers and should not be regulated; but he said the online industry should be concerned that legitimate e-mail marketing messages may get lost in the clutter.
* The average amount of spam received per user has increased from 3.7 to 6.2 per day.
* A research study predicts that by 2007 the average e-mail consumer will get more than 3,900 spam messages annually.
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