No end in sight for spam

The most hated aspect of life online, junk email, thrived in 1997 despite widespread hatred of it and various strategies to get rid of it.

4 min read
It clogged systems. It annoyed Netizens. It galled parents. It ensnared innocent bystanders.

Spam. Junk email. Unsolicited bulk email. Whatever you call it, without a doubt it is the most reviled, shunned, hated, low-down-dirty-rotten-detestable stuff on the Internet.

And yet, it survives. Maybe even thrives.

That's because those who send it, Greatest hits of 1997 despite the tide against them, still make money. Spam is almost free to send. Generally, it requires a dial-up connection for around $20 and maybe some software, usually under $100. If just a handful of people respond to a mass email campaign advertising a product, get-rich-quick scheme, or pornography, the bulk emailer stands to make money.

In 1997, spam went mainstream and managed to alienate and anger a good bulk of Internet users by its proliferation, its content, and its mere existence. In 1998, lawmakers will try to rein in the practice. Whether they succeed, of course, remains to be seen.

As last year began, spam to most Netizens was an annoyance--but generally not something about which they were willing to do much more than complain.

Back then, the battle largely was being fought by a few of the bigger online services, such as America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe, along with a cadre of people who communicated through newsgroups and private email and took it upon themselves to do everything they could to eradicate spam.

To some, spam might just be about junk email. To antispam activists, it's war.

Their weapons include technological tricks, antispam campaigns waged against Internet service providers that give access to spammers, public relations battles, and more.

To them, junk email amounts to theft because unlike physical junk mail, the end user (either the person who owns the mailbox to which it is destined or his service provider) winds up footing the bill for spam, paying the network costs for carrying it.

As spamming this year grew in popularity, antispammers' prophesies about the Internet buckling underneath the weight of millions of pieces of junk email, often misdirected and stuffed into errant email boxes, appeared to be coming true, at least on the small scale.

Individuals and companies were starting to get taken down by spam. Systems clogged and came to a grinding halt. Over Christmas, for instance, GTE blamed spam for the shutdown of one of its mail servers. Several individuals also complained over the year that they were personally shut down after spammers used the individuals' email addresses as forged return addresses.

People grew increasingly irate at their Internet service providers as they found their email boxes--and often the email boxes of their children--clogged with messages linking to hard-core pornography or pyramid schemes. And they demanded that their providers do something about it.

As such, fighting spam became a top priority for many ISPs--not only to protect their own equipment from being filled with it, but also to protect customers who were offended by it.

As the year started coming to a close, ISPs, free email companies, firewall vendors, and software companies seemed to put out press releases daily bragging that their networks were safer from spam than any other. Antispam zeal evolved into a business pitch.

Some ISPs tried creating technological solutions such as filters that aimed to keep spam out of their systems. They reconfigured their systems so spammers could not use their mail servers.

They hired employees specifically to protect their members from spam. They booted spammers.

Many, such as AOL and free email service Juno, took spammers to court. Most often, the spammers lost and ISPs won.

But no matter, the junk email has not stopped.

However, so-called legitimate spammers were hit hard.

Backbone Internet provider AGIS in the spring had made a go at trying to set up rules for spam. Phil Lawlor, chief executive of AGIS, said he would try to legitimize spam by giving it a home on AGIS's network and then making rules by which spammers would have to live.

But in September, after a legal battle with infamous spammer Sanford Wallace's Cyber Promotions, AGIS threw in the towel. Lawlor said spammers could not be trusted and he acknowledged what many spam fighters had believed from the start: he could never control spammers.

Wallace, known by some as the king of spam, said losing fights against AGIS and other antispammers hurt.

"I'd have to concede that this was a bad year for spammers," he said. But, he added, it was only a bad year for companies trying to make a "legitimate" go of spam as a business.

While some question whether Cyber Promotions engaged in "legitimate" practices, they would have to concede that the company at least was readily identifiable. While antispammers whooped it up after winning the battle against Cyber Promotions, they also acknowledged that going after well-known spammers did not stop them all.

Smaller operators scurried from ISP to ISP, finding a temporary safe harbor from which to send junk email until they were booted again.

And those spammers were not willing to abide by any set of "rules." They tend to engage in practices considered by many to be unsavory, if not illegal--such as falsifying return addresses and using mail servers of other companies.

The solution that many now advocate is legislation banning spam. Even civil liberties groups known to shun legislation regulating the Internet are advocating it.

And 1998 will probably be the year when the Internet community finds out if such laws work. Some say they will; others contend they will drive spammers even further underground, forcing them to seek homes with Internet providers in countries that do not ban the practice.

Meanwhile, Wallace announced imminent plans to form a new ISP just for spammers.

He said today that his plans have been put on hold to iron out the details. If the network does ever get off the ground, he said, it will be his last go at it.