No more retraction possible?

Whoever sends advertising in his emails should earn money from it

Just when you think that the Internet could have become as commercial as possible, one of the last bastions of privacy slowly begins to crumble. Epidemic Marketing, a Denver-based company, has pushed the boundaries of Internet advertising one step further through the use of clickable email attachments. If this catches on, we can expect email to be used as another tool to bombard our senses with commercial propaganda.

No more retreat possible?

Happy through Epidemic Marketing

This new form of Internet advertising works in a similar way to banner ads on websites. Every mail you send will contain a clickable or click-through advertising link. You will receive a small amount of money if the recipient clicks on the link. This can also be done on a system-wide level, so that every email that leaves a server automatically contains an advertisement, with the credit going not to the individual user, but to the administrator or owner of the server.

The idea of using email as an advertising medium is of course not new. Direct, unsolicited sending of advertising emails or spam is a constant problem. In order to find a solution to this problem, there are various spam filters, starting from the server level down to the individual user. Laws against spam are also beginning to take effect, even if they are still only weakly effective.

There is also a more subtle form of advertising that uses signature files. Sometimes these are just one or two lines at the end of the email and are therefore quite harmless, as is the case with free email offers such as those from Hotmail or Yahoo. Others, coming from individuals, are usually longer and advertise their own business, indicate where they work, or point out the last book they wrote or the last publication they edited. This has been an argernis with many mailing lists. This led to a lengthy discussion among netizens last year about how many lines a real signature file should have.

Although advertising in signature files could become a problem, unlike spam, it is more localized and can still be controlled within a group. Ultimately, spam and advertising in the signature file can be controlled up to a point through appropriate use of filters and moderation, but clickable advertising in the mail opens a Pandora’s box that goes far beyond unwanted mail or meaningless text at the end of the mail.

Most worrying is the problem of security. In order to send a clickable advertising attachment in the email, a small program must first be installed so that the email can be accessed in order to attach the advertisement. The risks are obvious, especially if Internet providers decide to use such advertising attachments as a mandatory part of their service.

A less obvious problem is objectionable advertising. Since email has no age or gender restrictions, porn advertising attached to mail sent to or from children may make the Internet seem like a den of perversity. And of course, clickable advertising attachments in emails will undoubtedly generate even more spam.

Despite these drawbacks, some try to justify the use of such mail advertising. Kelly Wanser, senior managing director of Epidemic Marketing, explains the propensity for this method this way: “Individual email users will thus be able to get a share of the revenue from advertising and direct marketing.” Another justification is the same one used for the use of banner advertising, namely that it helps to finance Internet services “services”. So in this case email. “The Web is a place where advertising is everywhere, and as much as people complain about the number of banner ads, I’m not convinced they really want the alternative”, writes Joe Burns from the HTML Goodies site. “Running a serious domain on the web is quite expensive. These banners make it possible to keep the offer free of charge.”

In addition to this hidden “value” of keeping the Internet free for everyone, it is also part of an evolutionary process: “First you had to pay for email”, Burns explains. “Then came free email services like Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. Now that progress is continuing. One can get paid for sending emails.” This is of course absurd. You never make any real money with such offers. Burns admits that at best you can lower your provider bill a little. On the other hand, companies like Epidemic Marketing make a lot more money from the advertising that users send with the mails.

Some will say that we are making a mountain out of a molehill here. The effectiveness of banner advertising, they admit, is doubtful. Maybe, but not everyone will agree. Statistics show that the opposite is true. For example, a recent report by Andersen Consulting found that banner advertising is more effective than regular advertising in getting experienced American Internet users to make purchases over the Internet. In a survey of nearly 1,500 Internet users, 25 percent said they were persuaded to buy something online by advertising banners.

It is not really about whether such advertising is effective or not, although this argument is used by many supporters of Internet advertising to steer the discussion away from the real problem. The real problem is that marketing strategies transcend traditional physical and legal boundaries by participating in the ubiquitous generation of important personal data and providing access to it to anyone who can pay for it.

The pseudo-justifications for advertising attachments in emails by comparing them to banners or by characterizing them as an evolutionary stage in the commercial development of the Internet only strengthen the process of no longer understanding privacy as something to be strictly protected. According to the article The end of privacy as a triumph of neoliberalism by Felix Stadler, this erosion of our privacy for the exclusive benefit of a supercapitalist state is understood as something that just happens, at least that is what the neoliberal ideologues want us to believe. However, it is urgent to take into account the problem of privacy as addressed by Stadler or by Deirdre Mulligan1, the consultant of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

However, it may not look entirely bleak to counter the immediate threat of advertising attachments in emails. The most positive outlook is that such an idea will not catch on because there is a limit to the nonsense that people will accept. For those who are less optimistic about mass resistance, there are other reasons for hope. If advertising attachments in e-mails become as common as banners on web pages are today, similar methods of dealing with them will probably emerge. For example, a program called Email Washer or something like it could be written that, like Web Washer, removes banner ads from web pages when you load them. Of course there is still, at least so far, the resort to pure text. As with viruses and other nasty bits of code, plain text is immune to the ravages of HTML advertising.

Ultimately, however, the success of advertising attachments in emails is linked to the more fundamental problem of privacy. We are already in a situation where we need to be more careful about how we send and receive information. We must therefore realize that this vigilance means time and work. We should not give in to the desire that we can do “everything automatically for people, and we should” and we should not accept the prevailing trends and predictions for the future. This is exactly, as Stadler rightly pointed out, what masked interests want to happen.

Translated from English by Florian Rotzer

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