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Spam, Spam, Spam, Lovely Spam

Brian Hayes

Green Cards and Spam

It is worth remembering, in this era of Web pages festooned with blinking and bleeping banner ads, and accompanied by pop-ups and pop-unders, that once upon a time the Internet was an advertising-free zone. As long as the U.S. government controlled a major part of the backbone, most forms of commercial activity were forbidden. The occasional violations of this rule attracted swift and severe retribution. For example, in 1978 Digital Equipment Corporation (since absorbed into Compaq) sent a notice about a new computer system to 600 subscribers on the arpanet, one of the ancestors of the Internet. The message was immediately labeled a "flagrant violation" of government policy, with the assurance that "appropriate action is being taken to preclude its occurrence again."

The rules changed in 1993, as the Net was privatized, but social strictures on indiscriminate advertising remained powerful for some years. In April of 1994 a message with the subject heading "Green Card Lottery- Final One?" was posted simultaneously to 6,000 Usenet news groups. The advertisement, signed by the Phoenix law firm of Canter & Siegel, offered information and legal services to immigrants. Thousands of Usenet regulars—incensed not only by the commercial nature of the message but also by the waste of bandwidth and the breach of "netiquette"—hounded Canter & Siegel by e-mail and fax and telephone. The lawyers' Internet access was cut off, and eventually the firm went out of business; Canter was disbarred. There have not been many such victories in the fight against spam.

As it happens, the Canter & Siegel incident was the event that first popularized the term "spam." According to Brad Templeton, a Usenet pioneer and current chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, certain small online communities had used the word earlier to describe various kinds of unwelcome verbiage, but it was the Green Card affair that made it widely known. The ultimate source was a 1970 skit on the British television show Monty Python's Flying Circus, about a restaurant with a limited menu and a chorus of Vikings chanting "Spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, lovely spam." (Incidentally, Hormel Foods, who make SPAM rather than spam, attempted a defense of their brand name, then decided to have a sense of humor about it.)

Although spam today is mainly a plague of e-mail, the Canter & Siegel ad and several other early examples were never sent as mail; instead they were posted to news groups. The Usenet news service is especially vulnerable to spamming because the complete list of groups is freely available to everyone, unlike e-mail addresses, for which there is no central directory. Furthermore, because a single news group can have many readers, and a single reader may look at many groups, posting to a few thousand groups annoys millions. E-mail, in contrast, is generally one-on-one, and it takes more effort to cause the same amount of consternation.

In view of the vulnerability of the news system, it's encouraging to report that the Usenet community was able to organize itself to cope with the problem, if not solve it. Both manual and automated controls have been put in place, allowing a message that can be identified as spam to be removed or at least flagged as suspect before it reaches the reader. (One of the anti-spam protocols is called NoCeM, pronounced "no see 'em.") Of course there is the potential for abuse by individuals who maliciously cancel legitimate postings, but safeguards are available, and the system seems generally to be working. Some spam still gets through to news groups, but the noise level peaked several years ago, and in most groups it is now quite tolerable. On the other hand, part of the reason that spammers leave Usenet in peace these days may be that they just don't care: Only a small fraction of Internet users ever look at news groups.

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