Edward Davidson, the “Spam King” escaped from …">

Appropriate Punishment for a Spam King; or, the Aggregate Value of Life

So I read on Slashdot today that Edward Davidson, the “Spam King” escaped from federal prison with the help of his wife.

(Update: it now turns out that after the escape, Mr. Davidson killed his wife and one of his children, and then committed suicide. This blog post, intended as a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek piece, was written before I learned of this. Kind of throws the whole thing in a different light.. Kids, please don’t become spammers — it really isn’t worth it.)

One obvious observation that can be made here is that, unless he is very certain that he will be able to evade justice for the remainder of his life, this was a pretty stupid thing to do: the punishment for escaping from prison is likely to be a lot harsher than the 21 months in minimum-security he received for his original crime.

Another question that came up in the /. comments is whether 21 months in minimum-security prison is an appropriate punishment for a spammer. Many people made the point that, although obnoxious, spamming is a non-violent crime and should therefore be treated less seriously than, say, murder.

I disagree.

How much human life does a typical murderer take? Of course, some people kill more than one victim, but many murderers probably get caught after the first offense, and anyway most modern societies seem to have decided that taking a single life is already worth the highest punishment which that society is willing to hand out. So if we assume a single victim, and if we furthermore assume that your average murder victim is 25 years old and would have otherwise lived to the age of 75, then our hypothetical murderer has taken away 50 years of another person’s life. Clearly, this deserves harsh punishment.

How does “Eddie” Davidson compare to that? Well, to the best of my knowledge he never killed anybody with his own hands, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario where any single one of his e-mails directly led to another person’s death. Maybe some of the pharmaceutical products he peddled were unsafe, but in that case the appropriate thing to do would be to prosecute him separately for that.

Nonetheless, it is a proven fact that Mr. Davidson sent out hundreds of thousands of unwanted e-mails, over a period of more than four years according to the Wikipedia article. I wouldn’t be surprised if “hundreds of thousands” is actually a low-end estimate; based on the amount and the indiscriminate nature of the spam I find in my own mailbox, I suspect that a prolific spammer sends out millions of e-mails in a single spam run. Of course, many of those addresses will be invalid and a large percentage of the spam will be filtered before reaching the recipient. So let’s assume that for each spam run he did, 200,000 mails ended up in the inboxes of actual humans, where they cost on average about a second of each person’s life to recognize the mail as spam and to delete it. Furthermore, let’s assume that during his career, he was responsible for 10,000 spam runs.

That would mean that, in total, he took away 2,000,000,000 seconds out of those people’s lives without their consent. That is more than 63 years! So although he may not have caused as much disruption in any single person’s life as a murderer would, if we look at the sum total of how much life he has taken away from other people, he caused more damage than if he had gone out and killed one person.

Furthermore, the odds of actually being caught and convicted for spamming are probably a lot lower than for murder. As David Friedman explains in his excellent book Law’s Order, with a low chance of being caught should go a correspondingly higher punishment, because otherwise rational criminals will do the math and decide that the rewards of the crime are worth the risk. Hence, the obvious conclusion is that the punishment of a prolific spammer should be roughly equal to that of a serial killer who took several dozen lives. (Yes, I am being slightly facetious here.)