Has the spam problem been solved?

Don't look now, but spam and telemarketing calls have been reduced to the point of irrelevance. What happened?

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in 2004 that the problem of spam would be solved within two years. It seemed unlikely at the time, and in fact 2006 came and went without so much as a dip in the crushing load of unwanted email advertising.

Meanwhile, unwanted telemarketing calls were on the rise five years ago. The future of junk e-mail and unwanted marketing calls looked bleak, with no relief in sight.

That's why I was shocked to realize this week that I really don't get much spam anymore. And I can't remember the last time I got a telemarketing call of any kind.

I asked my Google+ friends about how much spam and telemarketing they get, and most reported the same thing. The flood of spam has been reduced to a trickle.

Was Bill Gates right, but late? Has the spam problem been solved?

How Google killed spam

I started using Gmail the year Bill Gates said spam would be solved -- 2006. Even back then as an invite-only beta service, Gmail had a pretty good reputation for dealing with spam. But it was far from perfect.

For the first couple of years using the service, I remember having to cope with quite a lot of spam. At the time, I was getting at least 30 spams a day in my inbox. I also had to go into the Gmail Junk E-mail folder to cope with the inevitable "false positives" -- good email misidentified as spam. I usually found two or three of those a day.

Eventually, I stopped finding false positives. Every once in a while, I go in and pour through the Junk E-mail folder, and I never find any good e-mail there anymore.

Gmail spam filtering got better over time. But from about 2008 to some time recently, I remember being annoyed at how many 419 "Nigerian scam" emails made it into my inbox. You know, email with all-caps subject lines like "I NEED YOUR URGENT RESPONSE" with a sob story about being the child of the late so-and-so who deposited millions in some bank account, and they need my help to get it out.

I remember thinking, why can't Google identify these very distinctive emails?

I also used to get spam in Russian, Chinese or some other language I don't speak. Again, since I reported every single Russian email I got as spam, why couldn't Google's otherwise amazing algorithms figure out that all the email I get in Russian is spam?

I don't know when it happened. A year ago? Six months? I didn't really notice. But at some point, I stopped getting this spam.

It hasn't stopped completely. I still get two or three spams a day in my inbox, usually promotions to buy or distribute, oddly enough, electronics from Asia or some other far-away place.

But still. It's pretty great. And it's gotten even better lately. Google recently rolled out better controls in Gmail for filtering. And the company announced a new feature where a block on a person from one service also blocks them on another. For example, when you block someone on Google+, they're also blocked on Gmail. Nice!

A small minority of Google+ respondents say they still get way too much spam, even on Gmail. Users of Microsoft's Hotmail service report still getting massive amounts of email spam. (Gates's prediction came true for everyone but Microsoft users, I guess.) So services vary.

And spam shows up on non-email media, including SMS, faxes, Facebook and elsewhere. But as far as I can tell, the email spam problem has been largely solved -- maybe not for everyone, but for many.

How Google killed telemarketing

Telemarketing calls are down all-around, according to my informal poll. One big reason is the National Do Not Call Registry in the United States, which started being seriously enforced in 2005, and similar initiatives worldwide. The Registry lets anyone register a phone number, which places it on a do-not-call list that is illegal to spam.

The registry reduced, but did not end telemarketing calls. However, in my own case, such calls have stopped entirely. I haven't received a telemarketing call in at least a year.

The reason is that I use Google Voice, which is a free telephone service by Google that gives you a number for people to call. Your actual phone number can be kept secret.

Google Voice has many awesome features. One is that you can send callers to voicemail by pressing 2 when they call. Then you can listen in as they record the voicemail. Another benefit is that you can block any phone number. When blocked callers try to call you, they get a convincing fake "this phone is no longer in service" recording.

Google Voice is a call screeners dream, and has completely solved phone spam for me.

Google taketh away and Google giveth

Many services can take credit for dramatically improving the spam situation. But above all, Google seems to have done the most to make Gates' prediction come true and "solve" the problem.

Gmail and Voice are, as far as I can tell, the best services available for ending spam. However, I have found that Google+ currently enables something like spam. (Note that the service is new, unfinished and in beta.)

There are three basic ways to message someone on Google+. Messaging, emailing and "mentioning."

Each profile can have two buttons for reaching that person. (They're optional, so you can chose either or neither or both.) One says "Send a message" and the other says "Send an email." And each user can determine who is allowed to see and use these buttons -- people in circles, extended circles or anyone.

If you choose "Send a message" on someone's profile page, Google+ simply opens a Google+ post and addresses it privately to the person. It works great, and it's easy. But the message can easily get lost in the stream if that person has a lot of people in their circles. Google should add a "Messages" stream where direct messages are collected until they can be read.

If you choose "Send an email," the person gets a specially formatted email. This is a great spam-reducing feature in itself because the sender can't see your email address.

The third way to message someone is to add a plus sign to their name in a post, an act Google calls "mentioning" that person. For example, if I type anywhere in a message +Shakira, I get a drop-down menu that let's me choose Shakira. If she's got her profile set to get these notifications as email, she'll get an email telling her about my post with a link directly to it.

There are other ways to get email from Google+ posts, including when someone tags you in a photo, comments after you comment and so on. It's all user-configurable.

And this feature generates a lot of spam for me. (OK, technically it's not spam because it's not advertising. But it is unsolicited email.)

Google provides many options to deal with this. You can block users, change settings so you don't get emails when people plus or tag you and you can use filters to auto-Archive such mail.

The problem is that I want about half of this mail. The other half involves people just adding my name to posts in the hopes that I'll re-share. Others share their photo albums with me or tag me in photos that I'm not even in.

I don't want to stop it all. And I don't want to get it all.

The solution would be a setting that allows muting of emails from specific people. Blocking is too much. I want to continue to interact with people on Google+, but stop their emails that feel like spam.

Admittedly, this problem is unlikely to affect most users. Because I'm in the media and very active on Google+, I have a boatload of followers -- that's the main reason I get "mentioned" on so many posts.

Still, Google needs to work on messaging in Google+. Users need a "Messages" stream, and the ability to mute all email from specific users. Given the company's track record on Gmail, I'm sure this will get fixed.

The bottom line is that we all complained mightily about spam, and trashed the industry for a failure to effectively stop it.

And now that companies like Google and others have mostly eliminated spam and telemarketing calls, we should stop and acknowledge that achievement. And what a wonderful achievement it is.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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