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Spammers back with backbone

The kings of spam are back with a service for "email marketers," but this time they claim to be adopting a kinder, gentler approach.

The kings of spam are back with a backbone for "email marketers," but this time they claim to be adopting a kinder, gentler approach to advertising via bulk messages.

Global Technology Marketing Incorporated (GTMI), a joint venture between spam companies Quantum and Cyber Promotions along with an unnamed access provider, launched two sites a few months ago, one of which was shut down last month after it was discovered by activist antispammers.

The mirror site was still up as of early this afternoon--but it has since been taken down. It is unclear whether GTMI or its provider removed the site.

The mirror site had been listed by its Internet protocol address instead of by a domain name, which made it more difficult to notice at first. GTMI was using the site to advertise its connectivity services, which will become available "any minute now," according to Walt Rines, notorious spammer and president of GTMI.

GTMI's site was advertising the company's "unique vision for the future of Internet marketing and promotion." Monthly pricing for connectivity runs the gamut from T1 access for one year at $5,900 per month up to T3 access for 60 months for $73,500 per month. Clients are offered lower monthly rates in exchange for signing up for longer amounts of time.

Rines said the venture is not aimed at providing connectivity to just anyone looking to send spam. He and his colleague, fellow spammer and GTMI chief executive Sanford Wallace (also known as "Spamford"), are looking to "put email marketing on the same playing field as junk [snail] mail, telemarketing, and other forms of marketing that are accepted."

Spam is widely hated by Netizens, many of whom complain about the volume of junk email as well as its commercial, often crass content. The problem has escalated to such a degree that lawmakers on state and federal levels have introduced bills trying to curb the problem. (See related coverage)

Aside from the uproar in the Net community about the overall problems with the volume and nature of bulk email, access providers have complained as well. Internet service companies say they end up paying to process the spam, which at times clogs their servers. Some have brought lawsuits against spammers, many of which have been successful.

GTMI has an answer to that problem: Compensate the providers.

Rines said a representative from IBM Internet suggested a plan to make spammers similar to long distance phone service providers. He said long distance firms pay both the originating and receiving local networks for phone calls, and GTMI is proposing to impose the same policy on email marketers.

Whether providers are willing to risk the wrath of their customers once they find out that ISPs are working with spammers is another matter. Rines noted customers won't mind as long as receiving the ads means lower user costs for access.

"At least it makes things the way they should be," he said today. "Then it is up to the provider to pass the revenue stream on to the customers."

Indeed, ISPs are struggling with how to make money from providing Net access. The $19.95 per month industry standard is breaking down--ISP Netcom, a pioneer of the $19.95 per month standard, was one of the first to stop offering it. Online giant America Online is following suit, raising its monthly fee as of the April billing cycle. Others, such as MCI Communications, are using their muscle as phone companies to lower Net access fees--but only to customers who also sign up for long distance phone service.

Still other companies, such as Tritium Network, are offering free Net access for customers who are willing to endure continual ads on the bottom of their screens--but previous attempts at this kind of service have proven unsuccessful. (See related story)

AT&T WorldNet is one ISP that is not running to the front of the line to do business with spammers.

"Our job is to make it nice and easy for customers to get on the Web," said Mike Maney, an AT&T WorldNet spokesman. "AT&T doesn't see this type of business arrangement as being on the radar screen."

Administrators also could make GTMI's plan difficult to implement. "It will be interesting to see how successful the GTMI plan will be, considering that if they're running their own backbone, many administrators--myself included--will refuse any incoming connections from their IP space," Nick Hengeveld, a system administrator at CrossRoute Software, said in an email message. "When they're running on someone else's backbone, especially hopping from ISP to ISP, it's not as easy to do so since you might block out legitimate traffic in the process."

Another complaint Netizens have about junk email is the unseemly nature of the ads, which sometimes advertise pornography and get-rich-quick scams.

Rines said those practices will not be accepted by GTMI: "The quality of ads needs to improve." Also, GTMI will not accept "porn, fraud, or anything illegal or obscene," he added. He pointed out that the company, in its quest to legitimize spam, will not allow its clients to avoid blocks or break the law in any way.

GTMI has signed on "a couple of dozen" accounts already, though Rines said he may see high turnover. "We expect there to be quite a few jokers that we're going to have to be strict with," he said.

He added that although people hate spam, eventually they will see it as a necessary evil, similar to commercials on television--if it is legitimized.

"People hate ads--I hate them. But [users] know they're getting a benefit. They know they don't pay $20 for an issue of Newsweek because advertisers are subsidizing those costs. We think the market will tell whether people want to pay more for access on an email-marketing-free network," Rines said.

He recognized that his unfavorable reputation, along with those of Wallace and other spammers, will be a tremendous roadblock to getting the business off the ground. "Ironically, Sanford and I are the most qualified to do this type of business, but we're the least likely to be given a chance."