The father of modern spam speaks

Eight years ago, Laurence Canter outraged the purists by firing off a mass commercial solicitation on Usenet news groups to promote his law firm. The Internet has never been the same.

10 min read
On April 12, 1994, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, two immigration lawyers from Arizona, flooded the Internet with a mass mailing promoting their law firm's advisory services.

In doing so, this unknown husband and wife team changed the Internet with one keystroke.

The "Green Card Lottery" notice they sent out reached thousands of people using Usenet newsgroups and, on one level, qualified as an unqualified success. But it also triggered a firestorm of criticism from purists outraged at a breach of the informal rules prohibiting the transmission of unsolicited junk mail and advertising over the Internet.

Until then, government and academic researchers used the Internet to correspond and share information. But with the emergence of hypertext and Web browsers, the commercial possibilities had attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Indeed, for Canter and Siegel, it was simply business. But along the way, they inadvertently opened a Pandora's box. Subsequent copycats around the globe seized upon the example to use--some would say abuse--the Internet to promote unwanted commercial solicitations.

Modern Internet spam had arrived.

Much has changed since then. The spamming duo, who wrote a book, "How to Make a Fortune on the Internet Superhighway," divorced in 1996, and Siegel died in 2000. Canter was disbarred from practicing law by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in 1997, partly because of his e-mail advertising campaign.

Canter hasn't practiced law since 1995. Six years ago, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he's been developing software to help traders analyze stock options. With the eight-year anniversary of that signal event just over the bend, CNET News.com caught up with Canter to get his thoughts on the role he played in helping introduce Internet-based spam into the modern lexicon.

Q: Yours was perhaps the first widespread use of the Internet for unsolicited commercial purposes. What were you and your partner attempting at the time?
A: Keep in mind that the Internet world has changed a lot in the last eight years. Back then, it was partially an experiment because it was new. For what we were doing back then--selling immigration services--the Internet seemed like a logical source because at that time it was still pretty much the domain of techies and people in academia. And a lot of them, at least in the United States, happened to be foreign born and were our target audience.

"What actually existed on Usenet was a far cry from what is happening today with e-mail spam. It wasn't really invading anybody's private domain."
What kind of response were you hoping for?
Things like the Web were very primitive back then and it wasn't a very viable method of reaching wide numbers of people. What we had done and what got so much notoriety was posting notices to Usenet. For us, it was very effective. Would that be true today? Probably not as much so.

Who came up with the idea?
It was my idea. I had been a longtime user of, what we'll call the precursor to the Internet, the online services such as CompuServe. I played around with that for years. The Internet was fairly new to me when all this took place. So it was definitely my idea. It started as kind of an experiment. I had come across some Usenet groups that were related specifically to immigration, and I started participating in some of them and was literally bombarded with e-mail questions from people and it just sort of grew from there.

How did you implement sending the spam?
We're talking about the Usenet, not the spam that we see today. It was with a fairly simple script, a Perl script, that just pulled the names of all the newsgroups off a particular server and, just one at a time, sent the message to them through the various Internet protocols that were in wide use at the time.

How many people received the "Green Card Lottery" spam? Did you generate any business from it?
It was in the tens of thousands. Yes, we generated a lot of business. The best I can recall we probably made somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000 related to that--which wasn't remarkable in itself, except that the cost of doing it was negligible.

"Given the same set of circumstance--the same time, the stage of the Internet--I'd probably do the same thing."
Internet Direct terminated your account due to the incident. Is that correct? Then NetCom also canceled your account because you boasted of spamming again. Is that true?
As I recall, we had done a smaller posting prior to the one that made all the news and we had some difficulty with service providers. We were living in Phoenix at the time; and Internet Direct was one, if not the only, provider based in Phoenix at the time. We actually went down and talked with them and told them what we wanted to do. Our concern initially was that their servers would not be able to handle it because we knew there was going to be huge amounts of traffic generated--both from people's interests and people flaming. And they were really eager to tell us that their servers could handle it, no problem.

So they were fully aware of your intentions from the start?
What always made us mad was that they always knew what we were doing before we did it. Then they denied the whole thing. We set up our accounts with them initially for the purpose of doing this. They terminated our account in a very short period of time, a matter of days. And there was a lot of mail that we were really never able to get. We guessed there were 25,000 to 50,000 e-mails that never got to us. We eventually got a hard disk from them some months later that had it all on there, but we were never completely successful at pulling the data off of it.

"We never really contemplated doing mass e-mail back then, which I think is what most people think of spam today. I myself probably get 300 (spam e-mails) a day."

We went through several service providers. We finally set up our own servers with a T1 connection through PSI. They were a little nervous about it. We had all kinds of interesting exchanges with them over a period of months. But bit-by-bit, yes, we were terminated by pretty much everybody.

You generated a lot of hate mail. Were you surprised at the depth of angry reaction at the time? Seems that back then the Internet was more or less the private playpen of academics and geeks, and any commercial solicitations were considered off limits.

I was surprised at how much (the reaction) spread. It seemed to be that it was almost the in-thing to hop on the bandwagon and say bad things about Canter & Siegel. It was always my opinion that things were blown way out of proportion.

What actually existed on Usenet was a far cry from what is happening today with e-mail spam. It wasn't really invading anybody's private domain. The Usenet, to my way of thinking, is very different than e-mail because it's not something that's just coming to you. You're going to these message boards for whatever reason, and although it may be true that mass posting to every Usenet group in sight wasn't good, I still don't see how it is nearly as intrusive as receiving 300 pornographic e-mail solicitations every day.

Do you still receive hate mail today?
No, not in a long time. Maybe that will change if my whereabouts are known. I've been keeping a rather low profile in recent years.

Do you have any regrets about sending the spam?
I don't think so. Given the same set of circumstance--the same time, the stage of the Internet--I'd probably do the same thing. Somebody would have done it, if we hadn't done it.

For all the grief you received then, do you think that you also proved something about how the Internet could be used to send a commercial message to a lot of people?
What we definitely showed was that you could reach a lot of people--huge numbers of people! Today it would be the equivalent to reaching millions relatively easily. There's no question that we showed that you could reach those people. I suppose the more relevant question is 'what message is it that you're going to give to them and what kind of response is reasonable to expect?'

"I think there should be some mechanism in place to make it easy to not receive it or to filter it out before it ever arrives at your computer."
Are you surprised at all at the speed with which the medium has since developed as a vehicle for spam?
No, not at all. It's a logical progression. The primary reason we used it back then was because it was an easy, inexpensive way to reach a lot of people. It's an even easier and less expensive way to reach people today than it was then. We never really contemplated doing mass e-mail back then, which I think is what most people think of spam today. I myself probably get 300 (spam e-mails) a day. I don't even attempt to read them. I just delete them all right away.

Do you still use e-mail as a way of sending commercial messages to a mass audience?
Not a whole lot. I have a relatively small mailing list of my own, but they are primarily either my own customers or people who have asked for information. On occasion I do send e-mails to those groups, but you're talking about in the hundreds, not thousands and they're all people who, in one way or another, have expressed interest in getting information.

So, you're not sending unsolicited e-mail anymore?
I haven't been, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't at some time. One of the problems right now is that it's gotten to be--especially in the last six months--pervasive. I don't think it would be as effective.

Do you think spam plays a useful role in today's Internet?
To some extent, we probably welcome advertising. The problem with the incredible volume of unsolicited e-mail that we get today though is that, unlike junk mail that you receive in your snail mailbox, it's not immediately apparent that something is junk mail. With e-mail, you have to at least read the subject or who it's from to determine that it's junk and you don't want it. And the fact that it's so easy and, for practical purposes, costs nothing to send is resulting in considerably greater volume.

Is it useful? There have been times when I've gotten an unsolicited e-mail ad that was of interest to me. I happened to read it, and perhaps responded to it. But it's a very small percentage. Advertising that's going directly to the consumer, the majority of it is not effective, be it spam or anything else.

Do you think the government should be allowed to regulate or restrict spam?
I think there should be some mechanism in place to make it easy to not receive it or to filter it out before it ever arrives at your computer.

Is that doable?
There are some simple ways that it can be done. As a matter of fact, we made a proposal in 1994 with Usenet to (filter spam) by simply starting it with the word 'ad.' Because almost any program can filter things out. So if you don't want it, you can get rid of it. That would be one simple solution. I'm always very hesitant to suggest that we should have any kind of censorship.

Do you believe that banning spam violates freedom of speech?
I suppose it depends on the nature of the regulation, but if it would impede freedom of speech I would probably not be in favor of that any more than I'd be in favor of making it unlawful to send unsolicited mail. I don't think that's in our best interest. One of the problems though, where we need regulation, is the nature of what we get. I get so much pornography and other things that a lot of people find offensive. It just pours in. We don't even know where they get our names from. There should be some kind of regulation. I'm not sure that the regulation of e-mail should be, or needs to be, different than the regulation of any other form of communication.

How do you deal with the influx of spam?
I set up filters. I've tried lots of things. Nothing's particularly effective. One of the problems with the unsolicited e-mail is that it has different addresses from the mailer each time. So if you're filtering out e-mail addresses, if the same mailer is using a different address each time, it's not going to stop it.

How do you think spam will affect the way we use the Internet in the future?
It's not going to stop us from using (e-mail) because it's such a marvelous form of communication. But something does have to be done to eliminate the unbelievable volume (of spam) that many people get. One would think that it would lessen itself because it's not as effective.

Has the spam incident helped or harmed your career path?
It certainly changed it. I can't tell you whether my career is better or worse than it was eight years ago, but it's very different. I've devoted myself completely to computers, the Internet and software development ever since then.