"The Joy of Junk Mail"

By Mark Griffith



Salon Staff
November 20, 2001 1:13AM (UTC)

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Did Mark Griffith do any research at all about the downside of spam e-mail, or did he just pull this editorial out of his one-sidedly opinionated posterior? Although amusingly written for obviously humorous effect, the whole thing reads like a sales pitch from a spammer's coalition. It makes me wonder if the author is, in fact, one of the people responsible for sending all those offers to enlarge the penis I don't have, or any of the other countless unwanted missives I receive daily.

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There is nothing wrong with not wanting solicitors to have unlimited electronic access to you. Most spam mail I receive is untargeted, deceptive and reads like it was written by lobotomized monkeys. The majority of spammers hide behind fake e-mail addresses and bounce the spam off countless Web servers to make tracing the source more difficult. Even spammers want "free speech -- as long as it has a nice, secure one-way valve attached."

Frequently, spam is so far off target as to offend, such as the one I received recently that included images of hardcore sex. I wonder how many young children may have ended up viewing those pictures; the senders obviously didn't try to target their e-mail to people who would actually be interested in or of legal age to view the materials they were advertising.

But, aside from time wasting and the annoyance factor, there are larger issues at stake regarding spam. With just a bit more effort than pressing the delete key a dozen times a day, the author of this article could have done a Web search on the phrase "why spam is bad." He would have come up more than a few sites that clearly explain why spam is not just a nuisance on a personal level, but a financial burden on businesses, ISPs, Web hosts and end users (see this link, for example). Cost-shifting, fraud, resource theft and, in some cases, displacement of wanted e-mail are just a few of the reasons why spam can be a serious problem.

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Hey, Mark, since you seem to be enjoying spam so much, I'd be glad to start forwarding mine directly to you.

-- D. Naomi Leibowitz

I find I must take exception to Mark Griffith's statements on two grounds:

First, the burden junk e-mail imposes on the recipients is not a simple matter of free speech. All of us in the anti-spam community are quite aware of the importance of freedom of speech in a free society. The burden is an issue of volume and cost. E-mail costs money to transmit, and unlike postal mail the bulk of that cost is borne by the recipient. Junk e-mail imposes costs on the recipient without a counterbalance to keep the volume at a reasonable load, quite unlike other marketing media such as direct postal mail and telemarketing.

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Second, anti-spammers are not "bores," as Griffith characterizes us. We come from a full spectrum of people, with the usual diversity of interests outside of our desire to shift the costs of marketing back to the marketers.

Had Griffith bothered to spend a few minutes familiarizing himself with the material at any of the major anti-spam Web sites, all quite simple to find, he would have produced a better article. On the other hand, perhaps I should expect no more from someone who characterizes hundreds of people as "bores" on no more ground than that we oppose junk e-mail.

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-- Scott Hazen Mueller Chairman and Founder, CAUCE (Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail)

Mark Griffith writes: ".... Well how is it that I am able to check and delete my daily spam in roughly two minutes each day? And if I am really in a hurry, less than 30 seconds? Do I have godlike spam-processing powers denied to other mortals?"

Either that, or his time measurement of "roughly two minutes" is grossly inaccurate, or he doesn't receive as much "spam" -- commingled with other e-mail -- as he claims to receive (120 messages/day among three accounts). The primary aspect of spam that I detest the most is not its content, but that the messages that are actually significant (whether welcome) to me are often difficult to find quickly among a long list of recent arrivals. Commingling makes it difficult to discard the spam -- efficiently -- even if I recognize it from the sender and/or the subject, i.e., to do so without some risk of deleting a message that is, fundamentally, the only reason that I pay an ISP not only for Internet access but for their e-mail service.

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-- Ocie Hudson

In an article that will surely set records for angry letters to the editor, Mark Griffith attempts to equate blanket e-mail solicitations sent to illegally obtained addresses with political speech.

It's an assertion that might have worked as some sort of "Modest Proposal" satire, but Mr. Griffith seems to be serious.

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If he really believes in the legitimacy of spammers, he should ask himself why they invariably forge their return addresses or employ throwaway e-mail accounts for the propagation of their dubious offers, and why they send to more recipients than they could possibly correspond with.

No, anyone who is genuinely interested in political dialogue will employ a means that allows for two-way traffic -- and not spam. This is the crucial test that Mr. Griffith's claim fails.

-- John Simpson

You'd think that after years of debate on the subject, that the specious argument that spam is "free speech" would have been laid to rest long ago -- at least by those who didn't sleep through their third grade civics class. Paid advertising isn't free speech; this was settled legally long ago, and explains why your local paper isn't obliged to accept any paid advertisement that it doesn't want to.

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Why, then, should Constitutional protection be afforded to advertising that you must pay for (directly or indirectly)? Especially when most of it concerns things that are illegal or fraudulent? Unlike "real" advertising, spam doesn't subsidize other content; in fact, it hinders it.

What? You've heard all this before? Well, of course you have: The subject has been beaten to death over the last decade. Where has the author been? I'm glad he gets his jollies from whatever minor feelings of empowerment he gains from casually deleting his spam, and that he manages to glean nuggets of wisdom from poorly written or designed sales pitches. But these are feeble justifications for the daily flood of electronic sewage most of us must deal with. Many people derive enjoyment from odd habits or rituals others would find distasteful; most have the decency to keep them private.

-- David Ramsey

I expect you've had considerable reaction to the newsgroup posting of your recent article about someone who likes to get spam.

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Just in case you haven't yet received the background, here's what appears to have happened:

An excerpt of the article has been posted to several (perhaps dozens or hundreds) of newsgroups. The person who posted it hijacked an insecure server to relay it so he can't be traced or identified. He also set the follow-ups to route all *replies* to the news.admin.net-abuse.e-mail newsgroup. The intended result is to get that newsgroup flooded with responses/complaints thereby rendering it unusable by its normal readers and posters. There has been a large response, but not nearly enough to cause problems.

news.admin.net-abuse.e-mail has been subject to an almost constant stream of attacks, all using this method of operation, for months now, so it is very likely to be the work of the same individual (although, as is his intention, there is no way to prove that). He refers to himself by the name "Hipcrime," and is almost certainly a present or former spammer who got caught one too many times by the people who frequent news.admin.net-abuse.e-mail.

Originally, he just bombarded the newsgroup itself with messages, using a random text generator to create the subject lines and content. (Go through the Google newsgroup archive for the group for this past summer; you'll be astonished.) Since news.admin.net-abuse.e-mail is frequented by system administrators and other technically savvy types, most people filtered these messages out easily.

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The current attack is part of his new strategy: Racist remarks, solicitations for child pornography and messages on any other subjects likely to arouse passionate hatred (pro-Taliban rants lately, of course) have been posted all over the Internet with follow-ups set to direct the responses to news.admin.net-abuse.e-mail. Since the responses come from thousands of servers it's just about impossible to filter them out.

It would appear that many of the people who saw the post claiming to be from the author of the Salon.com article didn't quite understand the tongue-in-cheek nature of the piece (to be fair, what was posted was heavily edited, probably with that intent), so the responses are understandably somewhat vituperative.

I don't suppose this information will make the aftermath any easier to deal with, but at least you'll have the background and an understanding of what's really going on here.

My apologies if I'm the hundredth person to e-mail you this information.

-- Mark Roberts

Mark Griffith's exuberant article hits on most of the reasons that spam can be invigorating, but he misses the reason that, usually, it isn't: Message after message is full of cynicism. Having strangers trying to scam you is a lot less exciting than well-meaning entreaties from people selling patently worthless junk with no more misdirection than their own cheerfulness. Deceptive subject lines suck. So do pyramid schemers looking desperately for pigeons. How Griffith reads all this stuff without being worn down, I don't know.

-- Aaron Mandel

I too find some amusement and fascination in my huge daily dose of spam, but it's tempered by the realization of what it's really all about. Rather than being the pitches for arcane or obscene products and services that they appear to be on their face (and that Mark Griffith and most others naively take them to be), they're con jobs designed to do one thing: validate your e-mail address. Spammers blast out zillions of messages to made-up, but likely looking addresses, hoping that some land in actual in boxes, and that one or another of their outrageous come-ons will pique each recipient's interest. As soon as you reply to spam or click a link -- even just "to be removed" -- the sender knows the message reached a human being.

What is this knowledge good for? Now the spammer can sell your e-mail address at a premium -- to other spammers!

-- Bob Glickstein

I find it amazing you would publish an entire article devoted to the hugely discredited "just hit delete" philosophy of managing unsolicited bulk e-mail (spam).

It has been demonstrated time and again by ISPs, network operators and systems administrators that spam is the economic equivalent of postage-due junk mail. Even ignoring the many people worldwide who pay per-minute dial-up charges to download spam, everyone but the spammer pays to get abused by them. See this site for an excellent explanation of this concept.

I am likewise disappointed your editors found Mr. Griffith's screed on the alleged personality traits of spammers vs. anti-spammers worth publishing. I don't usually associate Salon's name with such a canonical example of yellow journalism.

-- Darren Gasser

Mark Griffith's piece was enjoyable except for one glaring problem with his logic. It would be nice to believe that over the next few years, a Darwinian process will winnow down to a few excellent spammers. Those who survive will be the most polite and interesting etc. ... However, Mark has forgotten that most spammers give up, and then sell their 10 million address list to the newcomer. There is an inexhaustible supply of newbies who come to the Net every day suddenly stricken with the desire to spam. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. In the meantime, I will write my congressman to have spammers encased in concrete bridge moorings.

-- Ori Neidich

"This is the dirty secret of the anti-spammers. You want free speech for yourselves, and perhaps for others sometimes -- as long as you don't have to listen too often."

This would be a much more compelling argument were it not for the fact that these spammers are not interested in speech; they post from bogus accounts, using forged e-mail headers, and advertise Web sites that are redirectors pointing to free Web hosting pages ... at every step along the way, they want your money but do not want you to know who they are (and God forbid you should engage in dialog with them!)

"Free speech" is a red herring. Spammers want the debate couched in terms of "free speech." But here's the dirty little secret of spammers: Commercial speech is not protected. In fact, commercial speech pitching, say, fraudulent "get rich quick" Ponzi schemes is ILLEGAL.

Which is, of course, precisely why these spammers conceal their identity in the first place.

Spammers are many things, but stupid they are not. They know what they do is wrong; most of the time, they know it's illegal. That's why they hide, and that's why they wrap themselves in the red-white-and-blue "Free Speech" nonissue.

It's not about speech. It's not about convenience. It's not about "beachcombing" or "access greed." It's about money. That's it.

-- Franklin Veaux

I have to agree that it is somewhat entertaining to browse through spam. My only objection is to the pornographic spam; I really believe that should be illegal. I don't consider that a "free speech" issue; it is illegal to sell pornography to minors, and it should be illegal to e-mail it to them. My 9-year-old daughter has an e-mail account, where she receives 5-10 spams a day. I don't care about most of them, but I do object to seeing nude pictures show up in the body of some mail messages.

-- Chris Ford


Salon Staff

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