November 14, 2011, 3:33 PM — Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in 2004 that the problem of spam would be solved within two years. It seemed unlikely at the time, and in fact 2006 came and went without so much as a dip in the crushing load of unwanted email advertising.
Meanwhile, unwanted telemarketing calls were on the rise five years ago. The future of junk e-mail and unwanted marketing calls looked bleak, with no relief in sight.
That's why I was shocked to realize this week that I really don't get much spam anymore. And I can't remember the last time I got a telemarketing call of any kind.
I asked my Google+ friends about how much spam and telemarketing they get, and most reported the same thing. The flood of spam has been reduced to a trickle.
Was Bill Gates right, but late? Has the spam problem been solved?
How Google killed spam
I started using Gmail the year Bill Gates said spam would be solved -- 2006. Even back then as an invite-only beta service, Gmail had a pretty good reputation for dealing with spam. But it was far from perfect.
For the first couple of years using the service, I remember having to cope with quite a lot of spam. At the time, I was getting at least 30 spams a day in my inbox. I also had to go into the Gmail Junk E-mail folder to cope with the inevitable "false positives" -- good email misidentified as spam. I usually found two or three of those a day.
Eventually, I stopped finding false positives. Every once in a while, I go in and pour through the Junk E-mail folder, and I never find any good e-mail there anymore.
Gmail spam filtering got better over time. But from about 2008 to some time recently, I remember being annoyed at how many 419 "Nigerian scam" emails made it into my inbox. You know, email with all-caps subject lines like "I NEED YOUR URGENT RESPONSE" with a sob story about being the child of the late so-and-so who deposited millions in some bank account, and they need my help to get it out.
I remember thinking, why can't Google identify these very distinctive emails?
I also used to get spam in Russian, Chinese or some other language I don't speak. Again, since I reported every single Russian email I got as spam, why couldn't Google's otherwise amazing algorithms figure out that all the email I get in Russian is spam?
I don't know when it happened. A year ago? Six months? I didn't really notice. But at some point, I stopped getting this spam.