CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Fighting onslaught of spam
11/4/96
by Cathi Schuler

"You've got Mail!" Anyone recognize that voice? It's the rich, game-show-host baritone that greets you when you log onto America Online, alerting you of new e-mail in your cyber-mailbox. Like children patiently awaiting Christmas, we all sit through the sign-on and log-in verifications anticipating that booming voice once the process is complete. Electronic mail is, after all, the No. 1 activity in cyberspace.

But over the past months, I've noticed an increasing number of unfamiliar posts cluttering my "in" box. These unsolicited letters have run the advertising gamut from food to hard-core pornography, and it is all junk, garbage, sleaze and, in a word, SPAM!

The term "spam" (not the fine food) was gleaned from a Monty Python skit and has been embraced by the cyberspace community as representing the practice of posting multiple copies of the same article or advertisement to newsgroups, bulletin boards or bulk e-mail lists, such as those routinely sold by on-line services, such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy.

Spamming is considered to be an egregious violation of netiquette and is, in fact, a terms-of-service violation for most on-line and Internet services providers. But spammers are a crafty and sneaky lot who go to extreme technological means to avoid detection and reprimand.

Junk e-mail is considerably more annoying and time-consuming than traditional junk mail or telemarketing. Since the actual cost of sending mass e-mailing is fractional when compared to hard printing and mailing costs, users are constantly bombarded with e-garbage that consumes hard-disk space, drains Internet bandwidth resources and taps user time and resources to avoid future harassment. It's as outrageous as being forced to accept a collect call from an unwanted solicitor.

E-mail lists are compiled in a number of ways, often with the actual user inadvertently contributing to the process. If you've ever posted a message to an electronic bulletin board or newsgroup or even sent a routine reply to a business entity, you've probably added your name to some bulk e-mail list. Major on-line services often sell their member lists to advertisers, and unless you have a brand new e-mail account, you're probably already on a bulk e-mail list somewhere.

But the netizens of cyberspace are launching a counteroffensive in the finest spirit of any good anarchy: on their own. Last week, America Online introduced Preferred Mail for its 6 million-plus members. This mail utility filters all member e-mail and blocks mail originating from notorious spammers.

AOL members may choose to turn off PreferredMail and receive all the junk mail they desire, but, by default, this filtering system is active on every account. Search the key word PreferredMail to set your own preferences and peruse the existing kill list. Since sending junk mail violates AOL's terms of service, members should forward any improper posts originating from AOL to screen name TOSemail1 or TOSemail2

The greater Internet is also striking back at spammers through various Web sites dedicated to stamping out spam. The Damar Group publishes an excellent resource page at http://www.dgl.com/docs/antispam.html that offers tips on protecting yourself from unwanted junk mail as well as guidelines for appropriate advertising on the Internet.

The Blacklist of Internet Advertisers -- compiled by Axel Boldt, University of Paderborn, Germany, at http://www.math.uni-paderborn.de/~axel/BL/ -- is the most comprehensive compilation of links and resources pertaining to spamming. There are even links to download the actual text or audio of the original Monty Python sketch. Point your browser at http://scf.nmsu.edu/~enielsen/python/Spam.html to get it. Mr. Boldt has gone to considerable lengths to educate netizens and provide them with the appropriate tools for an effective spam counterattack.

Of course, the requisite legal arguments over free speech and privacy have ensued and include challenges to a 1994 law that prohibits unsolicited advertisements via fax (cite: 47USC227). I think, however, the citizens of cyberspace would be well-advised to solve this problem on their own, lest we invite more government involvement.

It's bad enough that we've conceded to the barrage of advertising that accompanies every decent Web site, but to have our private e-mail boxes constantly invaded is intolerable. Fight spam!


Cathi Schuler owns Cee Prompt! a computer literacy training/consulting company. She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201.

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