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email petitions are spam

An email petition arrives with some information (often lengthy) about what the sender believes to be a worthy cause. It asks you to add your name (and sometimes other info) to a list and then pass the list on to all your friends and colleagues requesting that they continue the chain. It also asks you that should your name be (eg) the 100th on the list, to mail the list back to the organiser.

Let's suppose I start such a list, and pass it on to 5 friends, and ask that they continue the chain. To simplify, let's suppose a) that no one signs the list twice, b) that no two people supply identical information, c) that everyone who receives the list passes it on to between 1 and 9 people, d) that no one delays passing on the list, and e) that there is an infinite supply of people.

By the time there are 15 names on each list, up to 36,000,000,000 emails will have been sent, and each one one of them has my name on it. But how many times do the names appear of the 5 people I sent the original list to? And how is it possible to know the total number of people who have signed the petition?

Perhaps instead of trying to count how many people have signed the petition, it is intended to forward the returned lists on to the person or organisation being petitioned. Supposing everyone passes the list on to just 3 other people, and that all the lists are returned, each with just 15 names on them. Forwarding on all the returned lists at the rate of 1 per second would take about 2 months.

Successful email petitions result in large numbers of completed petitions being returned which often cause the receiving mail server to crash, followed shortly afterwards by the user's email account being cancelled. Thus the addresses for petitions to be returned to are likely to be invalid.

Email petitions tend to continue circulating indefinitely. Some of the ones I've been sent recently are years old. Often useful information is lost or corrupted in the process (exactly what details are required, where to return the list to, expiry date of the petition etc). And usually the older they are, the longer they are, and therefore the more time and space they take up.

Even for those completed petitions returned within the relevant time period, there is no realistic way of validating the names and addresses they contain. Therefore they are almost certain to be disregarded by whoever they are intended to influence.

Ironically, it is often those who are most concerned about pollution, environmental conservation and human rights in the physical world who are responsible for this type of littering in the virtual world. The waste of time, energy and resources is common to both. An email petition is merely another form of the chain letter. It is unsolicited. It is spam.

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revised 24 November 2005