Usenet spam strike ends

A two-week newsgroup spam canceling strike made its mark, even if it didn't bring the Net's bulletin board system to its knees.

3 min read
A strike by volunteer spam fighters shut down some newsgroup servers and forced others to start filtering their systems for junk messages, according to one of the boycott's organizers.

The two-week strike by the spam "cancelers" ended today. Although it did not bring the Internet's bulletin board system to a grinding halt as some had feared, organizers say it definitely made its mark.

"There were a lot of good things that came out of the moratorium," such as raising the awareness of about the problem, said Chris Lewis, one of the chief organizers of the strike. Although junk email is widely publicized, he noted that few Netizens recognize the scope of Usenet spam.

The boycott may end up having some other long-term effects, including the realization that many of the "alt." newsgroups may be lost to spam, Lewis said.

For months, a cadre of up to 30 people or so have spent a few hours each day canceling Usenet spam to prevent the junk messages from clogging newsgroups. But two weeks ago, many of the cancelers (not all participated in the strike) said they were tired of doing all the work and wanted to force newsgroup administrators to take care of spam themselves with filters.

So they called a "strike," letting the messages flood unprotected systems.

Most major Internet service providers already protect their systems with spam filters and were not affected by the action. But some newsgroup administrators--especially those at smaller ISPs with no filters--found that their systems became flooded to the brink with thousands of repetitive messages, Lewis said.

It's impossible to say exactly how much the strike affected Usenet. In fact, most administrators do not like to admit they have problems, just as they resist reporting break-ins to their systems, Lewis said.

However, he and other participants said they heard from administrators worldwide, including at least one university, whose systems were so jammed with spam that some had to shut down. Others had to kill off newsgroup messages after only a few hours to clear the way for other postings. Normally, messages last at least a few days.

"A lot of these people don't talk about it [publicly] but talk about it in private forums," Lewis said today. "We've heard of academic sites crashing--fairly significant ones, in fact."

And some ISPs that did not have filters before the boycott now do, Lewis said. Which is music to antispammers' ears. (They call themselves "despammers," for the record.)

"It has always been my (and I believe all other despammers') intent to put ourselves out of business," Lewis said in a message posted to the "news.admin.net-abuse.usenet" newsgroup. "Spam cancellation was supposed to be a temporary measure until ISPs and other sites got their act together and maintained the viability of Usenet on their own."

Most Usenet spam is directed at newsgroups that contain the word "sex" somewhere in the title--including, ironically, newsgroups such as "alt.sexual.abuse.recovery."

Lewis said the "alt" system of newsgroups may be doomed because of the spam flood. He said that when he resumes canceling messages, he'll ignore most of the thousands of newsgroups in that hierarchy and concentrate on the ones he deems worth saving.

Others probably will follow. But because spam canceling is inherently anarchic, it is impossible to predict what people will do. In the meantime, newsgroup administrators will have to decide how to handle spam.

"A lot of respected individuals who aren't despammers said they're turning off cancels and spending more time on filters, and that's really, really exciting," Lewis said.