Research aims at managing Internet spam

In an MU study, some customers say they would accept ads for a lower ISP fee.
Thursday, August 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:11 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008

MU researchers have devised a plan that would clean “spam” out of the inboxes of e-mail users who dislike the unsolicited messages while helping ad-friendly users save some money.

The model, developed by Clyde Bentley, an associate professor of journalism at MU, and doctoral student Anca Micu, aims to satisfy customers, Internet Service Providers and advertisers at the same time.

“There’s a lot of eagerness to hear this research,” Bentley said. “It crosses a lot of boundaries.”

Under the model, the ISP would direct spam to those customers who agree to accept the messages in exchange for a lower Internet service fee. To cover the cost of the discounts to consumers, advertisers would pay the ISP. Then, customers would view advertisements via e-mail.

Bentley said both the U.S. newspaper industry and the commercial broadcast industry are based on similar methods of advertising.

“Newspapers charge readers just a small percentage of the cost of producing their product, collecting 80 percent or more of their revenue via advertising,” Bentley said. “Broadcasters provide free content courtesy of the businesses that pay for commercials.”

Bentley, an advertising scholar, said the extreme dislike people have for spam is a result of how it is defined and delivered.

“The question was, if spam was seen in that same way (as television and newspaper ads), would it be accepted?” he said.

Bentley and Micu surveyed 2,140 university community members to find the answer. The data was divided into two groups, students ages 18 to 25, and non-students. The results showed that 63 percent of the students and 37 percent of the nonstudents were willing to accept spam under the model. They also found the younger participants and those paying higher Internet fees more willing to accept spam for a discount.

Wes Harden, a student at MU, said he receives almost 50 unwanted e-mail messages in his Hotmail account each day. Although Harden finds them “annoying,” Bentley said they are necessary to keep the Internet functioning.

“The dirty secret of the Internet is there is no free lunch,” Bentley said. “There are costs at every level and someone has to pick those up.”

Harden said he would consider accepting additional spam if given the choice. However, he would first consider factors such as the volume of extra e-mails, the quality of Internet service and the amount of the discount.

“If I’m getting cable Internet for half the price, I could probably deal with it,” Harden said. “If I’m paying $5 less for 56k, I probably wouldn’t — I’d probably just pay the extra five bucks.”

Survey participants were asked just how much of a discount it would take for them to accept more spam. Forty percent of the students and 24 percent of nonstudents said they would agree to the plan if they received a 40 percent discount in the price of their Internet service.

“It may sound like a lot, but it’s really not that much considering the subsidy in broadcast is 100 percent,” Bentley said.

Bentley and Micu presented their research last week at the International Conference on Politics and Information Systems: Technologies and Applications in Orlando, Fla. Bentley said he has yet to discuss details of the model with ISPs, but he thinks it could catch on in one to two years, if not sooner.

“If this is shown to be something that is a successful model, the logistics of it are very little,” Bentley said.

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