John Horvath on Thu, 2 Mar 2000 21:13:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> nowhere to run or hide?

I wrote the following a couple of months ago, but somehow I never bothered
to post it anywhere. This is probably old news anyway, but in casethere
are one or two who haven't heard the likes of epidemic marketing yet.



Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide?
by John Horvath

Just when you thought the Internet could be as commercial as possible,
perhaps one of the last bastions of privacy left is slowly being
breached. A Denver-based company called Epidemic Marketing has pushed
the frontiers of Internet advertising one step further, through the use
of click-on email attachments. [1] If this idea picks up, then we can
expect to see email being used as yet another tool to assault our senses
with commercial propaganda.

This new form of Internet advertising works much like the banner ads on
web pages. Each email you send would have a click-on (or, for some,
click-thru) advertisement link attached to it; in turn, you get paid a
nominal amount if the recipient clicks on the link. This can also be
performed on a system-wide level, in where every single e-mail that
leaves a server automatically carries an ad, with the income generated
not going to the user but the server administrator and/or owner.

The idea of using email for advertising is, of course, nothing new.
Direct, unsolicited email advertising, better known as spam, is a
constant problem. To deal with this problem, various spam filters are
available from the server level down to the individual. Also,
legislation against spam, although still not very prevalent, is
nonetheless making inroads.

In addition to spam, there is a more subtle form of advertising using
signature files. In some cases, these are simple one or two lines at the
bottom of messages and quite benign, as in the case of free email
services like Hotmail or Yahoo. [2] Others, coming from individuals, are
usually a lot longer and advertise their business, where they work, or
the latest book they wrote or publication they edit. This has been an
obvious irritation on many mailing lists; indeed, on Netizens, it
generated a lively thread last year in where participants argued at
length as to how many lines consist of a proper signature file.

Although signature file advertising can become a problem of sorts,
unlike spam it's more localised and still can be regulated within a
group. In the end, both spam and signature file advertising can be
controlled to a certain extent through the proper use of filters and
moderation. Click-on email advertising, however, opens a pandora box
that goes beyond unwanted mail or useless text at the end of a message.

Of utmost concern is that of safety. In order to send click-on email ad
attachments, a small program needs to be installed so that your email
can be accessed in order to attach the ads. The risks in doing so are
quite obvious, especially if ISPs decide to use click-on email ad
attachments as a non-negotiable part of their service.

A less obvious problem is that of unsuitable advertising. With email not
restricted to age or sex, porno ads attached to email either sent to or
from children makes the Internet really seem like a cesspool of
perversity. And of course, if simple spam was not enough, click-on email
ad attachments indubitably becomes a spam-creator, as email boxes fill
with the inevitable "Please click this link" subject lines from people
trying to make some money.

Despite these and other shortcomings, there are some who are able to
justify the use of click-on email ad attachments. Epidemic Marketing CEO
Kelly Wanser puts her spin on the concept in this way: "[It] empowers
individual email users to share in advertising and direct marketing

Another justification for email ad attachments is the same one used for
banner ads, that it helps "fund" Internet services -- in this case,
email. "The Web is a place where advertising abounds and as much as
people complain about the number of banner ads, I'm not so sure they
would want the alternative," writes Joe Burns of the HTML Goodies site.
"To run a serious domain on the Web is rather expensive; those banner
ads keep it all free."

In addition to the hidden "virtue" of advertising in keeping the
Internet free for all, it is also all part of an evolutionary process.
"First you paid to use e-mail," notes Burns. "Then came the free e-mails
like Hotmail and Yahoo mail. Now the progression continues. You can get
paid to send e-mail."

This, of course, is absurd -- you never make any serious money from such
schemes. Burns admits that, at best, you might be able to get a slight
reduction from your ISP bill; on the other hand, companies like Epidemic
Marketing make a great deal more cash through the advertising traffic
you've provided.

Some may argue that this entire issue is making a mountain out of a mole
hill. The effectiveness of banner ads, they contend, is questionable.
Perhaps. Yet not everyone agrees on this point. In fact, some statistics
show that the opposite is actually true. For instance, a recent study by
Andersen Consulting shows that banner ads are more effective than
traditional advertising when it comes to enticing experienced US
Internet users to make purchases over the Internet. [3] In a survey of
nearly 1500 such users, 25 percent said that banner advertising drove
them to shop online.

Whether such ads are effective or not is actually not the point, and is
used by many supporters of Internet advertising to steer the argument
away from the real problem. That is, marketing strategies are
transcending traditional confines (both physical and legal) by becoming
involved in the ubiquitous creation of sensitive personal data and
providing access to them by anyone able to pay for it.

The pseudo-justifications for email ad attachments, by comparing them to
banner ads or citing it as an evolutionary stage in the commercial
development of the Internet, merely attests to a process whereby privacy
is no longer regarded as something sacred. According to Felix Stadler,
in his article "The End of Privacy as Triumph of Neoliberalism", [4]
this erosion of our privacy for the exclusive benefit of a
super-capitalist state is regarded as a simple matter of course -- at
least, this is what neo-liberalist pundits would like us to believe.
Hence, the need to take into account the privacy issues as outlined by
Stadler and others, such as Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the
Center for Democracy and Technology, [5] is a pressing one indeed.

However, to counter the more immediate threat of email ad attachments,
the future is not entirely gloomy. The most positive outlook is that
such an idea won't take off because there is a limit to how much
nonsense people can take.

For those who are less optimistic about mass resistance against the
powers that be, there are other sources of hope. If email ad attachments
do become commonplace as banner ads have become on web pages, similar
methods of dealing with them will no doubt arise. For example, in the
same way that Web Washer [6] was developed to remove banner ads from web
pages as you retrieve them, so too will a like program be created,
perhaps called email washer or something to that extent.

Of course, there is still the safe (for the time being, at least) refuge
of plain text. As with viruses and other nasty bits of code, plain text
is immune from the devastating effects of HTML advertising. This would,
naturally, also apply to email ad attachments. Manually deleting the
unnecessary text or using macros to do so is the best safeguard in this

In the end, the extent to which the idea of email ad attachments takes
off is intertwined with those surrounding the more basic issue of
privacy. We already have a situation whereby we have to be more vigilant
with how we send and receive information. As a result, we must recognise
that this vigilance requires time and effort. We mustn't give in to the
desire to have everything "automatic for the people", nor become
complacent with present trends and future predictions. As Stadler
rightly pointed out, this is exactly what vested interests would like to
see happen.


1. <>

2. Admittedly, Yahoo has become more direct in using its signature file
for advertising, as the following example demonstrates:


Do You Yahoo!?
Thousands of Stores.  Millions of Products.  All in one place.
Yahoo! Shopping:

3. Andersen Consulting report "Banner Ads Are Not Dead"

4. cf. <>

5. Testifying before the US House Commerce Committee's Sub-Committee on
   Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection in July 1999,
   Mulligan stressed that to allow people's NIC card addresses be
   encoded in each of the IPv6 packets "is a potential violation of
   privacy because it exposes the type of equipment the person is using,
   as well as a unique identifier tied directly to that person's
   desktop." <>

6. <>

Further References

The Pentium serial number issue:

The regional registries views toward the issue:

How new standards bound machines to certain addresses:

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