TCS Daily

It's a Spammer's World, After All

By Sonia Arrison - November 3, 2003 12:00 AM

For only $19.95 a month, one can join an online club populated by individuals who, as many believe, make up the seedy underbelly of the Internet. No, it's not a club for pornographers or hackers but a support group for spammers.


The Bulk Club, less than one year old, bills itself as "the Internet's premiere club for responsible bulk mailers," and offers up resources and ideas for junk e-mailers. I signed up for a month to see what kind of information spammers are sharing.


After logging on, the first thing one notices is a quote referring to the first amendment, a sort of pick-me-up for beleaguered direct e-mailers: "putting up with annoying messages is one of the prices we pay for living in a country where we can criticize the president without fear of arrest, go door-to-door to pass out religious tracts or sell Girl Scout cookies...."


With Congressional proposals such as a "do not spam" list, recently added to a bill sponsored by Senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and passed last week by the Senate (S. 877), there's reason for spammers to feel under attack.


Also known as the CAN SPAM Act of 2003, S. 877 would require "senders of marketing e-mail to include a return address so the consumer can tell them to stop." This, of course, won't have much effect on the activities of committed spammers who can easily turn to the Bulk Mailers club for tips on how to send out loads of anonymous email by using programs such as Sendsafe and GhostSender.


Other spam goodies found at the Bulk Club include "e-mail extraction tools," a list of open relays (servers that allow anyone to connect to them and send email), free access to e-books on web marketing ("Milk the Web" caught my eye), a calculator to determine how much email must be sent in order to make a given amount of money, and "300,000 FRESH e-mails/week."


The file I downloaded didn't actually have 300,000 emails (it was more like 60,000) and I have no idea if they were "fresh." But the list, a big one, does exist, and many Internet users have likely been on it at some point.


No wonder, then, that a Pew Internet & American Life poll recently reported that 70 percent of e-mail users say spam makes their online experience unpleasant. And while there's no disputing that unwanted e-mail is annoying, it's clear that people have different ideas about how to define it. That's one of the problems with trying to stop the flow of spam with law.


If legislators impose their definitions of junk mail, some people will miss out on email they wanted to see while others will still complain that the definition isn't broad enough. Of course, that's assuming a law could work -- an unlikely event in a world where email originates from multiple countries and the Net's infrastructure does not allow easy authentication. And even when the perpetrators are domestic and easy to spot, it appears they still get away.


California recently won its first lawsuit against spammers based in Canyon County but a spokesperson for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer admitted that "we don't know where they're currently residing." A gaffe for sure, but even if law enforcement were to find these and other spammers, the fact remains that spam can be sent from anywhere and laws are constrained by jurisdictions.


One alternative way to deal with the problem of spam is through software programs such as SpamAssassin or Cloudmark's SpamNet. Earthlink, a popular Internet service provider, offers its customers the option of challenge-response -- a method of user verification that requires senders of email to answer a question to prove they are human, not a bulk-mailing machine. A decent idea, but eventually spammers will figure out how to beat this trick. A better way to stop spam is to charge spammers for sending mail.


Email stamps could be created allowing each user to charge senders they don't know. Email addresses of family and friends could be placed on the user's "free list," so that free communication between willing individuals would continue unfettered. Accidental charges could be refunded with the click of a button.


Numerous experts have confirmed the technical feasibility of this idea, so it's really a matter of implementation. As long as the policy community continues to focus on law over economics, the Bulk Club will thrive, users will be deluged with spam, and the Net will continue to be a spammer's world.

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