Happy spamiversary

Ten years after the Internet first woke up to unsolicited marketing attacks, outrage has been replaced by growing resignation. But the war rages on.

Paul Festa
Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
8 min read
On April 12, 1994, a pair of attorneys in Arizona launched a homemade marketing software program that forever changed the Internet.

Hoping to drum up some business, Laurence Canter dashed off a Perl script that flooded online message boards with an advertisement pitching the legal services of Canter & Siegel, the law firm he ran with his then wife, Martha Siegel.


What's new:
The Internet phenomenon known as spam marks its 10th anniversary. Intrusive online marketing is now an epidemic of massive proportions.

Bottom line:
Righteous anger over the problem has increasingly been replaced by resignation. Despite tireless efforts to rein in junk e-mailers, including federal legislation, spam is big business.

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The response was immediate and harsh, offering one of the loudest signals up to that point that unchecked marketing would not be tolerated in the new medium. Thousands of recipients registered their displeasure, and a new label for the burgeoning business of unsolicited mass Internet advertising was coined.

"Send coconuts and cans of Spam to Cantor & Co.," one outraged Usenet reader wrote amid the uproar that followed the Canter & Siegel message. "(Be sure to drop the can of Spam on its seam first.)"

Ten years after Web surfers began using the spam label to describe intrusive online marketing, junk e-mail has ballooned into an epidemic of massive proportions. But righteous anger over the problem has increasingly been replaced by resignation. With no effective solution in sight, many people now ruefully wonder whether the "Internet era" might more accurately be dubbed the "age of spam."

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Despite unceasing efforts to rein in junk e-mailers--including federal legislation aimed at limiting the practice enacted in the United States--spam is big business. Some of its most shameless purveyors have raked in fortunes, while the rest of the world has paid in frustration, wasted time and stolen network resources that one recent study, by analyst firm Basex, valued at $20 billion per year.

Even Canter later claimed that his pitch was a success, bringing in between $100,000 and $200,000 in business.

Expensive annoyance
Internet giants such as America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft have poured technical resources into solving the problem, and legislators have moved to limit the worst practices. Last week, prosecutors successfully won a guilty verdict in a criminal case that saw the so-called Buffalo Spammer sentenced with up to seven years in prison for alleged identity theft and forgery that enabled him to send more than 800 million e-mail messages through Internet service provider EarthLink.

Yet the spam problem has only seemed to grow worse each year, as spammers adopt potent new tactics that make Canter's Perl script seem quaint by comparison. In a worst-case scenario, spammers may now work hand-in-hand with overseas organized crime groups, employing Trojan-horse attacks that can turn PCs into "zombie" machines that spew out spam under the noses of their unwitting owners. Infected machines can then be rented or sold to underhanded marketers looking for a cheap way to send out millions of messages in hopes of garnering a handful of sales leads.

Astonishingly, some people actually respond to spam messages, keeping the whole system afloat. Even outrageous (and by now, well-known) frauds such as the Nigerian e-mail scam have duped some victims. Since spam is so cheap--even free to the sender under some methods--criminals are more than willing to annoy hundreds of millions of people for the chance of cashing in on one mark.

The problem is so bad that spam now threatens the very future of e-mail. Once billed as the Net's killer app for both business and consumers, e-mail senders are now largely aware that their messages may not be seen or read, because they may have been accidentally swept aside by antispam measures. For really important matters, use the phone, some now advise.

To be sure, spam isn't the only thing that's changed since Canter first launched his message board script. The Internet itself is more overtly commercial than it once was, having been transferred from government to mostly private control. Once policed primarily by social pressure and rules of etiquette, e-mail marketing is now ruled by myriad state and federal laws, and overburdened companies and consumers now have their pick of dozens of software products claiming the ability to manage the deluge.

From anger to resignation
Attitudes about spam, too, appear to have changed under the constant onslaught. While nearly everyone would seem to agree the Internet would be better off without it, spam has now become so pervasive that some people now seem to take it as a matter of course, treating it as an ineradicable, if unwelcome, feature of the landscape.

It was not always that way, though. People who have used e-mail long enough remember their first spam--and their anger--vividly.

"I was furious and disgusted," recalled California state Sen. Debra Bowen, who started using e-mail in 1989 and sponsored her first antispam bill in 1998. "It felt like a real violation."

Bowen recalled that, 10 years ago, the Internet was still considered an essentially noncommercial zone, populated mostly by academics and with relatively few choices in services. "All you can eat," unlimited-access plans common today were not widely available, and connection speeds were slow as molasses by comparison with current standards, making bandwidth precious.

"Spam was not just annoying; it was expensive," Bowen said.

Now, people with unlimited Internet access and broadband connections complain that they could use all their online time in just dispensing spam, most of which isn't pretty.

The advertising vehicle that proved so effective for Canter & Siegel's legal services is equally effective for hawking pornography, sexual aids, pyramid schemes, stock tips, credit repair--with unlikely return addresses pointing to the likes of Prince Peter Kabila, Clattering J. Spectroscopy, Sebastian Goins, Mrs. Floxy Page, and abcss016@1588.adsldns.org.

And that's just from yesterday's batch.

Canning spam
Spam's pruriency has incited legislators--claiming the mantle of decency--to throw the book at spam purveyors. The first national spam law reflects that mission in its name: Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (Can-Spam).

President George W. Bush's signing of that law in December, which capped years of legislative maneuvering, satisfied next to nobody. Despite a flurry of lawsuits by major e-mail providers, it has yet to curb the flow of spam.

Postini, a Redwood City, Calif.-based e-mail management provider, earlier this month said spam made up about 77 percent of the nearly 5 billion e-mails that coursed through its system in March. That's up a point from February.

"If this is the test of our ability to deal through legislation with the problems of the Internet age, Congress gets an F," said David Kramer, a partner with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who has criticized Can-Spam for legitimizing unsolicited commercial e-mail. "It's very disheartening to see that 10 years after this problem arose, not only have we done nothing on a legislative front to deal with it, but we've actually made it worse."

Given the international reach of spam and the creativity of spammers, some experts believe that technology will have to play a role in bringing it under control. Proposals have been floated that would revamp the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) e-mail standard to better track the real identity of e-mail senders, among other things. Others have suggested slapping fees on the delivery of e-mail to make spam uneconomical for the sender.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently opined that new countermeasures will eventually be found to solve the problem once and for all. But little consensus has emerged to date over what might work.

'Spam spam spam'
Analysts said the Canter & Siegel anniversary comes with some caveats--there was spam before April 12, 1994, even if it wasn't called that yet.

The term spam itself originally came into being in 1937, when Kenneth Daigneau won $100 for coming up with the name to replace Hormel Foods' canned meat-based product, then known as Hormel Spiced Ham.

Thirty-three years later, the British comedy group Monty Python got its hands on Spam. In an episode of the troupe's Flying Circus television show that aired Dec. 15, 1970, Monty Python performed a sketch in which a waitress at the Green Midget Cafe recites dish after dish featuring copious amounts of the canned meat, accompanied by a Wagnerian chorus of Vikings who drown out the restaurant patron, who protests that she does not want any.

On May 3, 1978, a Digital Equipment marketer named Gary Thuerk sent over the ARPAnet--the Internet's academic, military and strictly noncommercial predecessor--an unsolicited e-mail that advertised the company's support of the ARPAnet protocol in its products.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that users of the multiuser dungeon, or MUD, network environment made reference to the Monty Python skit by using the term spam to describe the posting of overly large text files.

According to Jonathan Spira, chief executive of Basex, it wasn't until 10 years ago that the Canter & Siegel e-mail inspired the use of "spam" to describe unsolicited commercial messages.

Hormel says that despite early moves in defense of its trademark, it has given spam up to the e-mail vernacular.

And while the company claims to have a sense of humor about its much-pilloried product, the 2-year-old, 16,000 square foot Spam Museum has no reference to junk e-mail.

"We don't really track that history," Hormel representative Julie Craven said. "The kind of spam we like to talk about the most is the kind you eat."

That's not funny
Spam critics say the problem is no laughing matter, costing the economy in many ways. One is the time it takes people to weed through in-boxes for spam and spam-boxes for legitimate e-mail; filters notoriously mix up spam and nonspam. Then there is the cost of data that goes missing with the so-called false positives.

Second is that managing spam cuts into a company's IT budget, sucking up time and money that would have otherwise gone into product development or systems upgrades.

Then, there are the tight restrictions marketing departments have to observe in order to avoid the dreaded "spammer" label. That inhibition is particularly acute for vendors of certain pharmaceuticals that are mainstays of the spam diet.

"What if the company that produces Viagra ever wanted to send out an e-mail?" Spira mused. "The value of that mark in that context has been utterly diminished."

With Viagra losing its trademark potency, corporations bleeding information technology time and money, and individuals and businesses alike losing patience and in some cases giving up, many are pinning their hopes on technology to solve the problem.

So far, spam has behaved like a wily retrovirus, adapting to whatever obstacles are thrown its way.

When companies began to employ filters that aim to identify and remove junk e-mail by examining the subject line or content of the message for suspicious words, spammers started misspelling them. When e-mail providers like Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo Mail started instituting visual verification tests to prevent computer-generated registration of accounts, spammers started using cheap African labor to pass those tests and open new accounts. Sophisticated spammers even use random word generators to try to increase the number of false positives so that e-mail users and providers have to turn off their filters.

Spam evolves on a three-month cycle, according to Burton Group analyst Fred Cohen.

Cohen--who says he's personally received as many as 60,000 spams in a 24-hour period--stresses that virtually no spam filter or deterrent can prevent the practice from being inherently profitable.

"You can send millions of spam e-mails a day for about a dollar," Cohen said. "That means if one in a million people buy something from you, you break even. Lists of validated bulk postal mail can cost a couple of cents to a dollar per person, and you can grab physical addresses of decision makers with buying power in Fortune 500 companies. But in spam, you don't have to be that selective. You could just say everyone in the United States."

And they do.