Even Without Spam, Email Is Not Cost-Free

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Freedom of speech is certainly an important human right. However, for quite a long time even in the United States, there have been legal limitations placed on that freedom.

For example, you do not have the freedom to yell "fire" or some such phrase and incite a riot in a crowded theater just for fun. A second example, and the main point of this article, is that firms and individuals cannot legally create mass physical mailings and send them via the U.S. mail wherein the recipient is liable for the postage. This creates an undue financial hardship on the receiver who never wanted the junk mail in the first place.

Sound familiar? It should, because it is the No. 1 reason in my mind that spam should be outlawed and that corporate email systems must be viewed as neither a public commons nor the personal property of the user.

Email is not free to the organization hosting it. It has never been free. Ease of use and low cost are two very different concepts that people risk confusing. For example, in the unbelievable decision by California courts that a disgruntled former Intel employee did not commit electronic trespass, the issue of financial costs did not appear to be sufficiently considered.

The defendant sent thousands of unsolicited emails to Intel employees complaining of Intel's labor practices. It would have been too costly for him personally to mail thousands of letters with the postage prepaid and illegal for him to have sent the letters postage collect, so instead he sent spam.

Without a doubt, he cost Intel some very real money both in terms of direct costs associated with the email systems as well as productivity related costs. Intel should have been able to immediately add his accounts to spam filters to block email as well as send a cease-and-desist notice. Computing resources are owned by the organization -- not the public and not the corporate user.

Accounting Cost Elements

Corporations easily can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in order to have the necessary infrastructure to support email. Yes, some > email system licenses are open source or trivially expensive for the server license, but one must look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) not just the cost of the email software. Some of the cost elements that must be included in cost considerations are:

  • Email server software licenses
  • Email client software licenses
  • Spam software licenses
  • Antivirus software licenses
  • Server hardware -- processor, memory, disk space, etc.
  • Backup systems -- tape drives, tape, backup software, on-site library storage, off-site storage, etc.
  • Network costs -- switches, routers, network lines, firewalls, Internet connectivity, gateways, DNS servers, etc.
  • People -- email administrator, network administrator, security, helpdesk, etc. These are but a few of the potential elements and a good cost accountant can whip up a solid cost per average email for an organization.
  • Opportunity Costs

    The accounting costs aren't the scary aspect of the total cost of unwanted email. The opportunity costs are the truly bone chilling part of the equation in the form of opportunity costs. You see, every time an unwanted email comes in, some portion of the users will actually open and read the email while some portion will spend a few seconds to scan the email and delete it.

    First, opportunity costs exist because the user is reading a junk email when instead, he/she could be working on something of actual value. For example, if someone reads an email discussing how to get rich quick, then what opportunities were lost that could have been done instead? If the next email in the queue related to a mission critical problem, then there was a delay in the user getting to it. Hence, there is a cost associated with the person working on a non-value-add activity.

    Second, in a very similar fashion, many users are alerted when new email arrives and they stop what they are doing and go read the new message. With spammers frequently using intentionally difficult to guess user names and subject lines, people must often actually open the email to definitively identify whether the email is of value or not.

    Thus, there are inefficiencies introduced as they switch screens, wait for screens to appear and so on. Then, they must get back to the original issue and mentally switch gears to continue what they were working on. The interruption may have caused the person to lose his/her train of thought and irreparably harm the work product or at least cause delays. Once again, addressing the spam email is at the expense of other activities.

    No matter how you look at it, time is valuable. The issue at hand is that unwelcome emails create very real burdens to the individuals in an organization as well as to the organization itself.

    Email Costs!

    The main point of this article is that the whole email concept requires resources. To organizations, be they government bodies, corporations or small businesses, email is not free, it has never been free and it will never be free. There will always be associated costs. By sending out spam, the cost burden is shifted to the receiving party and when the recipient works at an organization, there are very real costs placed on the receiving organization.

    For the very same reason that mass mailers cannot send out unsolicited mail postage collect, the spammers should not be allowed free reign to send out emails. Furthermore, organizations should have the undeniable right to filter emails that both enter and exit the organization's systems and pursue legal actions when someone creates an unreasonable burden. The organization's email system exists for the organization and not the employee!

    Freedom of speech does not mean that people and organizations have the legal right to create cost burdens for organizations wherein the organizations have little to no recourse to stop the onslaught.

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