A spammer in the networks



Millions of people who chat to each other on the Internet fear they are about to be deluged by spam - the electronic version of junk mail. Charles Arthur investigates

In the early hours of 12 April, Laurence Canter set a program running on the computer at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. By morning, this simple action had brought the culture of the American entrepreneur into irrevocable conflict with the global anarchy of the Internet.

The program started by Canter, who with his wife Martha Siegel runs the law firm Canter & Siegel, sent a message over the Internet offering the firm's services to anyone who wanted to take part in a US government lottery of 'green card' work permits. He posted the message to around six thousand of the electronic forums known as 'Usenet newsgroups', on which people round the world exchange information and opinions with others who have similar interests. By doing so, he breached the unwritten rules of the Usenet and provoked an almighty row.

When cultures clash, the result is rarely a draw. Canter and Siegel believe they have discovered an untrodden road to riches. Advocates of the Usenet claim that if others copy the couple's actions, the Usenet will be swamped and rendered useless.

After Canter sent his message, anyone who logged onto a Usenet newsgroup hoping to find the latest gossip about their chosen topic - which range from Amazon women to the Vietnam war - would have been greeted by a message headed: 'Green Card Lottery 1994 May be the Last One!! Sign up now!!' Most of the estimated six million readers probably just deleted it. But many were infuriated. Blanket posting to all newsgroups breaches the informal 'netiquette' that has evolved to govern behaviour on the Usenet, which says that postings should be relevant to the topic of the newsgroup, and that you should give back as much to the Usenet as you take out. This does not preclude advertising. There are occasional 'for sale' notices in relevant newsgroups, and many business-oriented forums offer items for sale or carry advertisements for jobs. At least one newsgroup, which discusses US visas, would have been a perfect site for the message. Others may also have fitted the bill. But to many people the message was just an annoyance, the electronic equivalent of junk mail.

In Net parlance, Canter & Siegel's posting was 'spam' - a term that stems from the Monty Python sketch in which spam, repeated again and again, is the main ingredient of every meal on a cafe's menu. Spamming has been used to describe widespread, unwanted postings since about 1990. Last year an evangelist spammed the Usenet with a long message proclaiming that 'Jesus is coming'. Minor incidents happen almost daily, usually from pyramid marketing schemes or chain letters. Spamming is unpopular because it clogs the Usenet, obscuring its purpose, which is to let individuals communicate with each other about subjects that interest them.

The typical response of disgruntled readers is to e-mail an insulting message or 'flame' to the writer, or send a 'mail-bomb' - a huge, useless program that takes up large amounts of the receiver's disc space. Such actions usually prompt an apology, if only because it becomes hugely time- consuming to sort out a few positive replies from the hundreds of angry ones.

Two things set Canter & Siegel's April posting apart. First, it was legal, unlike pyramid marketing schemes or chain letters, which are illegal in many countries. Second - and more important to those who want the Usenet to stay as it is - was the two partners' reaction when their breach of netiquette was forcefully pointed out. They did not, and do not, apologise. The response to their posting was unprecedented. They received 20 000 flames and reams of junk faxes. Mailbombs sent to them clogged the computer system of their 'service provider', Internet Direct Computer Services, which linked their PC to the Internet. After that system crashed more than 15 times, the company terminated Canter & Siegel's account on the grounds that its actions were interfering with the service to its other clients. The couple promptly switched to another service provider, called Netcom. But on 20 May, Netcom also cut them off after Canter boasted on a TV show that he would spam again. John Whalen, Netcom's president, likens his decision to turning away a would-be customer at a restaurant for not wearing shoes. 'Being a responsible provider entails refusing service to customers who would endanger the health of the community,' he says.

Canter and Siegel are unrepentant. In their book, How to make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, to be published in January, the couple pour scorn on the concept of a 'community' on the Internet. 'Someone may tell you that in order to be a good Net 'citizen', you must follow the rules of the Cyberspace community. Don't listen,' they advise. 'The only laws and rules with which you should concern yourself are those passed by the country, state and city in which you truly live. The only ethics you should adopt as you pursue wealth on the (information superhighway) are those dictated by the religious faith you have chosen to follow and your own good conscience.' The couple say that amid all the flames and bombs, they also received 20 000 requests for information. They claim to have taken on 1004 clients, who were charged between Dollars 95 and Dollars 145 each. In their eyes, the revenue - more than Dollars 100 000 - generated by their message more than compensates for the inconvenience and notoriety suffered in acquiring it. Their book outlines an overwhelming commercial case for spamming by comparing the cost of reaching an individual through TV, radio and the Internet. A 30-second advertising spot during a top daytime soap would cost Dollars 45 000, equivalent to just over Dollars 20 per thousand people per minute. A 60-second local radio slot costs Dollars 285, or Dollars 14 per thousand people per minute. On the Internet, Dollars 1000 buys a connection to around 30 million computer users, or 3.3 cents per thousand people - and for a whole month.

People who regularly participate in the newsgroups worry that if enough companies begin spamming, the Usenet's essential quality as an unregulated source of ideas and opinions will be destroyed. Jim Gillogly, a computer scientist with the research organisation RAND in Santa Monica, California, says that if lots of people follow Canter and Siegel's example, the proportion of meaningful messages to irrelevant ones 'will drop even further than it already has, and the Net will become unusable'. If vast numbers of advertisements are sent to newsgroups, people will no longer be able to filter out what they want to read, says Howard Rheingold, a journalist based in San Francisco who has written extensively about electronic communities. 'What if you went to your traditional mailbox every day and got a letter, two bills and 60 000 pieces of junk mail?' he asks. The few people who defend the lawyers in messages to newsgroups tend, like Canter and Siegel themselves, towards impatience with what they see as a reactionary response to the wave of commerce now sweeping the Internet. 'This so-called spam is from people who are trying to be entrepreneurs, which is what made America strong,' wrote one supporter. This posting prompted a swift reply from Jon Noring of the publisher OmniMedia, based in Livermore, California. 'So you'd have no problem with people putting up billboards in Yosemite National Park? How about billboards at the top of every mountain and along all the ocean beaches?' he wrote. 'There's room in Usenet to do business and commerce, and to also provide the 'parks' and freedom from advertising that we all like sometime. It's a balancing act, and what you propose is not a balancing act. It's a bulldozer, and will work against the business that you so cherish.' Canter and Siegel say that staying out of those 'parks' would restrict them too much. 'The responses we got indicate that the broad posting was right,' insists Canter.

Others on the Usenet argue that if only a few people respond to a message that is accurately targeted, that's just too bad. Making a fortune has never been easy, and doing it by trampling on other people's sensibilities is sure to arouse resentment. Canter and Siegel counter that the violent reaction to their message comes from a small elite that has had the Usenet to itself for years, and resents other people using it to make money. Siegel goes further by suggesting that people who discourage spamming are opposing the right to freedom of speech. Vocal Usenet users dismiss this as a red herring. Their protest is not against the content of the posting, but where it is placed. 'It's rather like they stood up in the middle of a movie and yelled about their next product, then went to the next theatre and yelled about it there; and in fact did it in theatres all around the world simultaneously,' says Gillogly.

One of the hottest debates in newsgroups that discuss the administration of the Internet is the best way to stop spamming. In April a Norwegian programmer devised a 'cancelbot' - a program that automatically detects postings from Canter and Siegel and deletes them. But some people, though implacable opponents of Canter and Siegel's methods, say this would be contrary to netiquette because it amounts to censorship on the basis of name.

Others suggest that service providers should impose some sort of restriction on anyone who joins the Internet and posts more than, say, 30 messages in a day or sends the same message to more than 50 newsgroups. Alternatively, such articles could simply attract a general cancelbot. Another group of people have set themselves up as 'Net judges', to whom copies of widely posted messages are sent urgently (This Week, 1 October). If they agree that a message has been spammed, they may issue a cancelbot. This has, however, led to accusations that the court is behaving dictatorially. The argument continues on the Usenet around the clock.

Ultimately, Canter and Siegel expect their viewpoint to prevail. 'Every time something new happens on the Usenet, somebody there predicts it's going to destroy it,' says Canter. 'But it doesn't.'

Ron Newman, a programmer at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that many companies will think twice before spamming, though not everyone will stop. 'People with no reputation to think about - ambulance-chasing lawyers, get-rich-quick scam artists, sellers of worthless products - will continue to infest the Net unless some concerted effort is made to keep them off.' The stage is set for a fight, possibly to the electronic death.

New Scientist Volume 144. Issue 1952.