From the December, 1996 issue of "Yahoo! Internet Life"


Enough! A Modest Proposal to End the Junk Mail Plague

IN THIS MONTHLY COLUMN, you'll read the rumblings of a working journalist who uses the Net several times every day. Online resources have become such second nature to me, indeed, that I go to my usual destinations (Cinemania, the CompuServe Show Biz Forum, the Internet Movie Database) without even making a conscious decision; it's like reaching for the dictionary. In this new column, the movies and movie people may occasionally make appearances, but the focus will be the online world.

If the Net is the most useful research tool ever available to a reporter, it is also the most misleading, dangerous, and seductive. Every piece of information has to be weighed for possible flaws. Searches turn up hundreds of sites having nothing to do with the subject And a remarkable amount of bandwidth is devoted to undergraduates telling each other they suck. Then there is the tendency to start with a destination in mind, and end up an hour later and dozens of URLs away. (I once went online to research Charles II, and concluded my search with a full-screen picture of a librarian who had the alphabet tattooed on her back in Garamond Italic.)

For all of its promise and problems, however, the Internet has always seemed remarkably resilient and forgiving. Until recently.

I opened my AOL mailbox today and found two legitimate messages and 29 examples of Spam. CompuServe is not yet quite so flooded, with no more than six or seven spasms a day. My Internet address is quasi-secret; concerned about privacy, I have posted only three or four messages to newsgroups. That's good enough for three or four spams a week.

Junk mail is growing at a frightening rate. I'm convinced it's only a matter of months until e-mail has been drowned in a sea of noise. Although it is simple enough to delete one example of spam, it is a nuisance to delete a dozen, and torture to delete 50. If the junk is not thrown out daily, my mailbox fills up; after 100 messages, CIS rejects additional mail.

I have a folder on my desktop filled with spam I've downloaded. It contains 2.8MB of crap, just from the past month. I am asked to:

1. Purchase a unique new product from Japan to fight Caucasian body odor!
2. Make money by downloading every e-mail address I can find!
3. Save "Sesame Street" by signing a 37K petition and sending it to everyone I know.
4. Earn $1 apiece for mailing "our circulars" to "potential customers."
5. Lose 10 pounds in 10 days! 20 pounds in 20 days! You set the limit!
6. Get "FREE!!! 100s of XXX= SITES!!!"
7. "Become a Bulk E-Mailer" in my spare time!

In addition to commercial spam, there is lots of well-intentioned spam from friends (or from friends of friends, up to six degrees of separation). This includes countless copies of "humor", tirelessly circulating the Net, including the story about the guy who creamed himself on the canyon wall with his jet-powered car. And the inevitable weekly warning about the "Good Times" virus, a non-existent threat that has been routinely defrocked for years and still leads a ghostly half-life in the warnings against it that circle forlornly around the Web.

In the case of the Good Times virus, the warning itself is the virus, infecting mailboxes with useless but panic- stricken tocsins about what happened to others. Since it allegedly melted down their hard disks, it is hard to see how they were able to pass the warning on, but that's typical of chain letters, which somehow always have backward knowledge of those who did not heed the call.

Only so many bytes can get in the pipe. The Net is in danger of clogging with an epidemic of useless information. What can be done? My friend Andy Ihnatko has programmed Eudora Pro to respond F*** YOU AND ANYONE WHO LOOKS LIKE YOU! " to any message from proven spam site. (He does not use asterisks.) Deeply satisfying, yes, but flawed because (I) proven spam sites change their addresses faster than crack houses, and (2) they have ingenious ways of deflecting return mail.

The best answer to the Spam Plague lies at the individual level. My suggestion, which sounds like safe sex, is to simply-but-totally refrain.

Last spring I was on a panel about "Bad Manners on the Net" at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado. We agreed that junk e-mail (then no more than a mote in the eye) could eventually bring the whole cooperative endeavor of online mail crashing to its ruin. On the spot, I devised the Boulder Pledge, and we solemnly crossed our hearts, and took it

The Boulder Pledge (see above right) works by making junk mail unprofitable. If nobody ever buys anything, spammers eventually will quit I hope.

End the Plague. Raise your right hand. Read aloud from below. Then, pass it on. On second thought, don't pass it on.

The Boulder Pledge

"Under no circumstances will I ever purchase anything offered to me as the result of an unsolicited e-mail message. Nor will I forward chain letters, petitions, mass mailings, or virus warnings to large numbers of others. This is my contribution to the survival of the online community."

Read about the CAN-SPAM Law Here!
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