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Engendering disgust

By Scott Bradner

I've resisted writing about spam mail for a long time. The last time was mid 1994. This is not to say that spam is far from my mind. It would be hard to forget the issue considering how many spam messages I get per day. Judging from the fact that all too many of the messages I get are advertisements for companies that will send spam mail for you or will sell you the software to do it yourself, things are not likely to get better soon.

Some people still claim that spam is not a problem because you can just delete the message and move on. I wonder if those people actually use computers. I'm sure that they do not subscribe to AOL. The figure on spam most often cited in the last week or so has been that as much as one third of the mail on AOL is spam. It gets more than a bit tiring to retrieve and delete all the junk.

I've decided to revisit the question of spam at this time because of the reception to the announcement of some anti-spam technology by Sendmail Inc. this past week. This announcement was a major story in most of the major U.S. news organizations including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN. Spam and the dislike of it is hitting the big time. That observation plus the FBI sending out its own spam ( has gotten me to write again.

The Sendmail improvements try to make it harder for those companies which send out spam to hide their actual location, something these companies do to avoid the angry return mail and the notifications of bounced mail. They redirect that to some innocent 3rd party or to someone that they do not like. The improvements also try to keep the spam senders from using 3rd party computers to do the actual sending of the mail. All good stuff and these improvements will be quite a help but the problem will not go away easily.

A few years back junk faxs were a big problem but they have just about disappeared in the U.S. Two seemingly minor changes in the legal landscape seem to have done the trick. First, you must not send faxes to people who don't want them. Second, all of the information on the fax, including the identity of the sender, must be completely accurate or the assumption is that you are attempting to commit wire fraud, a felony. The same might work for spam.

The business of spam must be controlled if the Internet is going to get close to its potential. A future in which hundreds of thousands of companies are sending unwanted mail to millions of people is not pleasant to imagine.

It does continue to amaze me that some people are eager to engender the disgust of millions in order to get the business of a few hundred, but immunity to disgust seems to be a feature of the people that are in this type of business.

disclaimer: I trust Harvard engenders more envy than disgust but in any case the above are my laments.