When candidates spam

When candidates spam: By Deborah Scoblionkov. A mass e-mailing by a New Jersey Republican stirs up an online hornet's nest.


Deborah Scoblionkov
February 20, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

On Feb. 4, thousands of outspoken and fiercely opinionated computer users around the world opened their e-mail to read: "You are receiving this message because you have participated in discussions about political issues on the Internet and having done so, have solicited contact on the subject. If you wish to be removed from our once-a-month future mailings, a simple reply with the word REMOVE will suffice."

Like so many other e-mail messages, it was spam. But the source wasn't a multi-level marketer or some clown selling bulk e-mail lists -- it was a New Jersey politician testing the waters for a statewide campaign.

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Murray Sabrin is a Republican with his eye on the U.S. Senate seat that incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg announced this week he will vacate. Sabrin used to be a Libertarian, and in his 1997 campaign for governor against Christine Todd Whitman he was the first candidate from that party in his state to raise enough contributions to qualify for matching funds.

Spammers often defend their activity as an exercise of free speech, but many people online consider spam to be theft and trespass as well as an invasion of privacy. "Speech isn't free when it comes postage-due" is one anti-spam motto. Since Sabrin is not only a former Libertarian but also a professor of finance who has stated that "private property rights" are among his "core values," he might be expected to be sensitive to the spam issue.

Instead, once the mass e-mailing by Sabrin's committee -- along with spam postings to many unrelated Usenet newsgroups (like soc.culture.japan) -- had sparked the inevitable flurry of flames and complaints, his office responded with further curt provocations.

One anti-spam activist complained directly to www.murraysabrin.com with the subject "SPAMMERS belong in jail NOT public office!" The following reply from someone on Sabrin's committee was forwarded to the Spam-L mailing list:

Nice reply, just one problem: This is OUR E-mail account. We pay for it. We may use it to communicate our thoughts to whomever has an e-mail address because the Internet is the equivalent of a public square. You can listen, not listen or ask us to remove you. Since the last item is obviously what you seek, we have done so. Just understand that your e-mailbox is the equivalent of your tv set: it is open for broadcasts that you can choose to receive or not. Good day.

Another angry victim received this response and posted it to the anti-spam newsgroup news.admin.net-abuse.email (known as NANAE):

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Thank you for writing. We're kind of stunned you took such great pains to reply since hitting the "DELETE" key would have been far faster. Not to belittle your point, but we started wondering amongst ourselves if you also wrote letters to anyone sending you junk mail through the post office, or if you write to television networks complaining about tv commercials? ... In the future, quit your belly-aching and use the DELETE key.

Needless to say, these responses did not endear Sabrin to the spam
fighters of the Net, who don't take well to having to request to be removed
from mailing lists they'd never signed up for -- and who, when told to hit
Delete, will proceed to get the spammer's account deleted by his Internet
service provider.

Sabrin's spam urged recipients to visit his Web site, where visitors
were invited to post comments to a message board. Many gleefully took the
opportunity to complain about spam and point out that it's anathema to
libertarian ideals -- but their messages mysteriously disappeared, deleted
by the webmaster.

The flood of flames and complaints was so great that within 24 hours of
sending the spam, Sabrin posted an apology to his message board with the
title: "This is a PUBLIC APOLOGY for the SPAM sent to people via the
Internet." It read: "When we created our Exploratory Committee, we got
assistance from people with various skills -- including computer skills.
Unfortunately, the youth who assisted us with our Web site took it upon
himself to contact folks who did not seek such contact. Please accept my
sincerest apology and rest assured this will not occur ever again."

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But hours after the apology was posted, people were still receiving
Sabrin's spam. One California electrical engineer, Cameron Spitzer, posted
evidence of continued spamming in a message to Sabrin's bulletin board
titled "What a LIAR! He's STILL SPAMMING, AFTER posting his phony
'apology!'" But his message was quickly deleted. Soon afterward, Spitzer
received what he called a "love note" in his mail box, from
abuse@murraysabrin.com, accusing him of trespass, libel and defamation.

The next day, the message board (and Sabrin's apology) disappeared from
Sabrin's site. It was replaced by a moderated bulletin board without any
hint of the controversy that was raging. Although the spam appeared to have
stopped, the threatening e-mails from Sabrin's committee to the complainers
continued.

Sabrin was lucky that his Web site host, cihost.com, let him off with a
warning against spamming. The Internet service provider used to send the
spams was not so merciful. They had originated from an Internet account at Erols
Internet (owned by RCN),
using a forged address, Exploratory.Committee@erols.com. Such forgery, in
addition to violating the terms of service of nearly every Internet service
provider, is illegal in two states (California and Washington).

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Erols is known for its strict anti-spam policies, enforced by an
employee known simply as "Afterburner," who has achieved demigod status in
the anti-spam world. His response to those who complained about Sabrin's
spam was short and succinct, leaving all the gory details to the readers'
imagination: "This spammer has had his account turned into a thick, yellow
spray. Sorry for the trouble. Yours, Afterburner RCN Abuse Guy."

After the Erols account was nuked, the legal threats to people who
complained about the spam to Sabrin became even more hysterical: "Our
account with Erols HAS been temporarily suspended or revoked and unless
they restore it, we will file suit against them in Federal District Court,
naming YOU as 'John Doe' ... We suggest you hire a lawyer and prepare to
defend yourself against our claims of 1) Violating our civil right to free
speech; 2) Tortuous interference with our business affairs; and 3)
interfering in our interstate commerce."

In a show of solidarity with their comrades, other anti-spammers
immediately wrote to info@murraysabrin.com demanding to be sued as well.
They received this comment in response: "If you are merely injecting
yourself into this situation because you feel riled about our possible
legal action against others, we suggest you butt-out."

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Then, things got even stranger. A search for Sabrin's name in DejaNews
revealed that not only had he spammed Usenet newsgroups, but apparently
someone in Australia who'd received the spam had taken revenge by posting
messages that forged Sabrin's name to alt.sex newsgroups. And results from
search engine inquiries turned up an old Web page touting Sabrin's 1997
campaign; it listed an 800 number that, while no longer associated with
Sabrin's campaign, was now promoting a pornographic 900 service.

The denizens of NANAE were spellbound by the unfolding drama. As one
contributor observed: "Readers of this newsgroup have over the last few
days ... witnessed events related to the exploratory campaign of Dr.
Sabrin which seem so bizarre that people are wondering whether someone is
deliberately sabotaging his campaign."

One concerned participant was moved to write directly to Sabrin:
"Murray, Someone using your campaign name is sending aggressive, badly
spelled replies to complaints about your spamming political messages." A
few actually called Sabrin to make certain it was not a political dirty
trick; they were distressed to learn that it was not. Others simply
relished the sadistic spectacle of watching a spammer squirm: "Sounds like
the heat is starting to get to them. Time to pour on more gasoline ... Well, if they insist on lighting up their stogies in fireworks factories,
what further damage could any of us do? Hell, now they've started flicking
burning matches around at random. I just hope they survive to learn from
the experience."

One participant, inspired by Sabrin to create a Web page devoted to
politicians who spam, explained: "I've got a live target in my sights, and
I'm not going to let up. The time for apologies is past, this bastard is
going to pay."

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Finally, last Tuesday, Sabrin announced that he'd fired the volunteer
who'd spammed and issued a lengthy new public apology both on
his Web site and to the NANAE newsgroup, taking more responsibility for the
incident than his initial apology.

Magnanimous in victory, some NANAE-ites laid down their weapons,
accepted the apology and wished Sabrin well on his campaign. Others didn't
let him off so easily: "That's about as sincere an apology as 'I am sorry I
ran over your cat with my car, so I fired my mechanic and slapped his
wife.'" One NANAE regular cautioned against the need for retribution: "I
mean, if this Murray Sabrin is speaking the truth, one can say the guy
responsible for the spamming got fired and his one-year prepaid account at
Erols was terminated. Severed heads and rotting corpses on poles along the
Internet information highway would be nice too, but we'll take what we have
:-)"

Sabrin is now philosophical about his foray into spamming. Although he
admits it was a mistake, he insists that his intentions were good and
innocent. "I thought it would be an effective way to disseminate
information," he explained after the brouhaha had calmed down. "I thought
the Internet was an open forum. I guess I was wrong."

The politician seems to have been extremely naive about the culture and
interactive nature of the Internet. According to him, it was the nastiness
of the anti-spammers' flames that prompted the webmaster to reply with
empty threats of lawsuits. Those responses to the spam were so vile and
upsetting that Sabrin can't even bring himself to repeat them: "When I
disagree with someone," he says, "I do so in a polite and civil manner."

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Sabrin is anxious to move forward with his political ambitions. He now
says he better understands the privacy and property rights issues
surrounding spam, and plans to educate others and work toward solving the
spam problem. He hopes to announce his campaign for U.S. Senate sometime
this summer. But if New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman throws her hat
in the ring, all the spam in the world may not help him win the
nomination.


Deborah Scoblionkov

Deborah Scoblionkov is a Philadelphia writer.

MORE FROM Deborah Scoblionkov

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