UK: Techknow - Ask Bill Gates.

UK: Techknow - Ask Bill Gates. - Q. How do you feel about junk e-mail? Can it be avoided?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q. How do you feel about junk e-mail? Can it be avoided?

A. Wasting somebody else's time strikes me as the height of rudeness.

That's what makes electronic junk mail and e-mail hoaxes so maddening.

The 'free' distribution of unwelcome or misleading messages to thousands of people is an annoying and sometimes destructive use of the internet.

The cost of sending a message on the web is essentially zero, which means the burden is borne by the recipients who must wade through unwanted messages, and by the internet companies that handle this 'spam' - the name for junk e-mail.

You can spot most of these messages easily because their topics contain inflated promises, uppercase letters or multiple exclamation marks: 'You Too Can Easily Earn $1,000-$5,000 a wk!!!' is typical. The identities of the senders are usually camouflaged or falsified, because people sending garbage don't want to take responsibility for it.

It doesn't take long to detect and delete an unwanted message but going through dozens a day wastes time for millions of people. Of course, a lot of e-mail is perfectly legitimate. Mass mailings are appropriate if the recipients have signed up for offers or 'news' on certain topics.

Spam, on the other hand, often comes from mailboxes set up by people for just long enough to send one mass mailing. There's no easy way to get oneself removed from a spammer's list, or to complain. I use software that does a pretty good job of filtering junk e-mail, but it also eliminates some messages I'd probably like to read. It's unfortunate.

I predicted in my 1995 book The Road Ahead that eventually we'll be paid to read unsoli-cited e-mail. We'll tell our e-mail programs to discard unsolicited messages not offering a certain amount of money. If we open a paid message and discover it's from a long-lost friend or someone with a legitimate reason for contacting us, we'll be able to cancel the payment. When this day comes, spam will cease to be a problem. People will decide what their time is worth and advertisers will have to pay to reach them. Legislative solutions have been suggested, too. It has been proposed that all advertisements must be clearly marked and all e-mails must include a legitimate return address. Software advances should also make it easier to trace the real originators of e-mail, which should help discourage spam.

Even more annoying than spam are hoaxes. A message once came my way which read: 'My name is Bill Gates. I have written an e-mail tracing program that traces everyone to whom this message is forwarded. I am experimenting with this and I need your help. Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list will receive $1,000 at my expense. Enjoy. Your friend, Bill Gates.' The message was widely forwarded with attached wishful commentaries such as: 'I'm sure this is hooey ... but what if it isn't??'

Well, it is hooey. There's a lot of hooey on the net, and a lot that's rude. But it doesn't mean the web isn't wonderful, that it won't change the world or that it won't get a lot better over time.

Ask Bill Gates questions: askbill@microsoft.com.

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