Tech Talk


William Dan Terry

IP News (Internet Edition) Summer 1997

SPAM - It's What's Being Served

"spam vt. [from "Monty Python's Flying Circus"] 2: To cause a newsgroup to be flooded with irrelevant or inappropriate messages. You can spam a newsgroup with as little as one well- (or ill-) planned message (e.g. asking "What do you think of abortion?" on soc.women). This is often done with cross-posting (e.g. any message which is crossposted to alt.rush-limbaugh and alt.politics.homosexuality will almost inevitably spam both groups)." (Source: The Jargon File 4.0.0)

More recently, the term "spam" has come to include the flood of unsolicited email from one source into many email boxes. And for many people who have recently joined the ranks of Internauts, this is the version of spam that is most noticeable.

Generally, some little-known company is peddling some service or product in your email box without your invitation. Spam is a form of mass marketing akin to postal junk mail. Many times, the company with the service or product has hired another company which performs the actual spamming.

Clear signs that something is amiss is that the spammer rarely provides a user-friendly way to contact him. There is almost certainly a way to give him money, but no way to get questions answered. Many tout a website where you can get more information about them, but rarely, if ever, is there an email address which responds, or is even real. This is not only strange because email is still the most common use of the Internet, but also because the spammer is quite happy to invade your emailbox. Yet, the spammer certainly doesn't want someone to do the same thing to him.

Spamming is actually against netiquette. This has been probably the biggest controversy on the Net both before and after its popularization. Though, it was A.P. (after popularization) that the email version has become prevalent, as people try to figure out how to squeeze money from electrons.

Spamming is a serious threat to the Net. It has no greater barrier of entry than an email account; no US$.32 stamp per person or even bulk rate. For US$20 for a month's worth of Internet access, someone can email 50,000,000 or more people, repeatedly, ad nauseam. Now if 10% of the companies on the Net spammed, the Net would cease to work. It just can't handle that kind of traffic.

It's not a whole lot different than a company-owned truck that will routinely drive on a road with a weight limit much less than the truck. If enough companies send their trucks down the road, the road will end up so trashed that an individual on a bicycle can't even use the road anymore (let alone the trucks.) The Internet works well for individual use even when those individuals are doing business for companies, but sending trucks down the Internet will kill it.

It's a simple case of the spammer not only shooting himself in the foot, but shooting everyone else there too.

This is a single thing which could cripple what may well be the most globally important tool we've ever had (besides the wheel and lever) and which many people have experienced for a long time. Nothing like spending time working on a public garden with a lot of other people, only to have a group of self-serving dirt bikers decide it's a great place to tear around.

One of the recent spams I received offered an email address list with 25 million addresses. Let's see... 25 million addresses... millions of companies online... Now imagine that on top of the 50 messages a day that you get, you (and everyone else) were to get an email from just one thousand companies a day. You wouldn't get any work done. All work around the world which relies on email would halt while people just tried to get through the email. How do these spammers expect to get business if their spamming causes the world economy to slow down? Unfortunately, the quantum leap in capability that the Internet brings the world is also available to those who would abuse it for greed.

Filtering used to be a way to weed out most junk. Email implements the functionality according to "rules" which allow the user to select where the email goes based on a variety of criteria. However, it is coming to the point where the methods that spammers use to avoid filters leave filtering everything except known senders as the only option to avoid the spam. This of course means that legitimate email from new people would get filtered. Not great for business either.

Some ways to deal with spam are to not give business to companies which use spam, and if possible notify those companies as to why you won't do business with them; to not use spam yourself; and to write to the ISP where the spammer gets Internet access and complain. Many ISPs don't want to carry the stigma that comes with providing service to spammers.

For mail user applications which support filtering, one way to deal with spam is to filter emails from unknown sources into a "questionable" folder. By doing this only emails from known senders remain in your regular inbox. The "questionable" folder can be checked every so often for emails which are from legitimate senders, but at least the spam won't get in the way of regular expected correspondence. Any unfortunate oversight of legitimate email in the "questionable" folder is the risk this filtering option carries, but may turn out to be the lesser of two evils as spammers increase in numbers and effort.

In the United States, a number of bills are being offered to deal with this problem. One of the stronger ones is the Electronic Mailbox Protection Act authored by Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey). This bill makes it illegal to send email from false addresses, to register new domains to be used to avoid email filters, to move operations of American companies outside of the US to avoid US laws, and requires bulk emailers to honor "unsubscribe" requests.

Legal measures will help, if well designed, but the only way to eradicate spam as a marketing tool is if everybody follows the ways to deal with it outlined above, specifically to not use spam and not do business with companies that use spam. If there is no payoff, marketing spam will go out of business, and the rest of us can continue to use the Internet to do business.

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