Instant Messaging: A New Source of Spam?

Advertising via the new instant messaging applications now flooding the
Internet may be the next tactic of dedicated spammers.

The thought may give spam-meisters shivers of delight, but recipients
undoubtedly will have a different opinion.

“It’s one thing to fend off, delete, or ignore spam in an e-mail in box.
Imagine if the unwanted advertisements, pornography promotions and pyramid
schemes simply popped up on your computer screen–without any warning or invitation,” said a recent article in The New York Times.

More immediate than e-mail, instant messaging technology allows users to send
messages to someone else online that can pop up immediately on the recipient’s

The instant messaging concept got an endorsement last week when America Online
Inc. said it will pay $287 million for Mirabilis Ltd, an Israeli company that
owns ICQ, an instant messaging and chat service with
about 12 million registered users.

The Mirabilis acquisition adds to AOL’s dominance of the industry: the company
claims 30 million users of its Instant Messenger software, the Times said.
That includes members of AOL’s proprietary online service as well as Internet
users who have downloaded AOL’s instant messaging technology. Competing
services include iChat, with half a million users, Ding, with 100,000, and
PeopleLink, with 310,000.

As instant messaging increases in popularity–it is now used by more than 40 million people–it is bound to confront some of the irritations that have
plagued other forms of Internet communications, such as e-mail, newsgroups and
chat rooms, the Times said. And one issue raised by instant messaging
subscribers is an increase in the amount of unsolicited messages they receive.

“One time, I received an e-mail from ‘a friend’ that contained nothing but a
URL. When I clicked on it, it took me directly to a smut site,” Che Nera, a
business student in the Philippines who uses ICQ, was quoted as saying. “It’s
a waste of Internet time, which here in the Philippines is very precious since
the Internet is quite pricey.”

Ray Everett-Church, the co-founder of the anti-spam group Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-
, said the problem is most severe for people who participate in
America Online’s chat rooms. He said spammers can check the chat rooms to see
which AOL members are signed on, then fire off advertisements. “If you spend
an hour online, it’s not at all uncommon to get three or four instant message
solicitations,” Everett-Church said.

However, even the critics admit that the problem is not nearly as widespread
as unsolicited e-mail sent to traditional mailboxes. For one thing, bulk e-
mailers haven’t figured out how to take full advantage of instant messaging

For its part, AOL says it gets relatively few complaints about
the issue. “This is not a problem,” Barry Schuler, the president of
interactive services for America Online, was quoted as saying. “That’s not to
say it doesn’t happen, but it’s very localized.”

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