But lately a ray of light has cut through all the gloom. Spam -- the Internet's original sin -- dropped for the first time ever at the end of 2010. In September, Cisco System's IronPort group was tracking 300 billion spam messages per day. By April, the volume had shrunk to 34 billion per day, a remarkable decline. "The largest spam-sending botnets are being shut down and a lot of the big pharmaceutical spam has disappeared," said Nilesh Bhandari, a product manager with Cisco.
Not everyone needs $20,000 a day. Average income in China for example is only a couple thousand dollars US. Costs are lower overseas and profits can be lower while still maintaining financial feasibility.
Spam watchers say a handful of high-profile arrests at the end of 2010 put a dent in the business, but there may be a bigger issue: E-mail spamming, at least in its traditional form, may not be as profitable as it once was.
"You don't see a lot of new blood coming to the table," said Joe Stewart, a researcher with Dell's SecureWorks group. Every year or two Stewart takes a look at the top spamming botnets on the Internet. He analyzes spam messages and tracks down the networks of hacked computers responsible for sending them out.
This year, the news was that there was no news. Stewart didn't find any new spam botnets. "Everything that is spamming today is pretty much what was spamming two years ago," he said in February when he released his latest report.
There was a brief, halcyon day when the Internet, or rather its precursor, the Arpanet, was spam-free. But then a Digital Equipment Corporation marketer named Gary Thuerk decided to let a few hundred Arpanet users know about his new DecSystem-20 mainframes, and it was downhill from there. When consumers flocked to the Internet in the mid 1990s -- Soloway's glory days -- the open online culture provided a breeding ground for fraudsters, and soon the vast majority of all messages on the Internet was unsolicited commercial email.