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Spam is ten years old today.

Ten years ago I was at Cambridge spending too much time doing stuff on the internet when I was supposed to be working on my Ph.D. thesis. In those days the World Wide Web was fairly new and didn’t contain that much information, and Usenet newsgroups were the normal way that people on the net formed online communities. (These are now archived on Google). Newsgroups were devoted to individual subjects, and although there was a tendency for conversations to become heated and abusive in certain circumstances, civil and intellectually stimulating conversations often occurred. Knowledgeable and interesting people gained reputations, and some of these people are still prominent in internet circles to this day. At the time the net was largely paid for by universities, the Deparment of Defence, the National Science Foundation and various other government organisations, and commercial activity of any kind was frowned upon. (It may seem remarkable today, but when the Hotwired website (then the online arm of Wired Magazine) became the first website to introduce advertising in 1994, many people complained that this was contrary to the spirit of the internet and threatened to boycott the site).

However, on March 5, 1994, ten years ago today, something terrible happened. The first spam was sent. The same message was posted to thousands and thousands of different newsgroups. This came from Canter and Siegel, a two person husband and wife law firm from Arizona, advertising their services providing assistance to people who wished to enter the US Green Card lottery. We had never seen anything like it, and we were outraged. Canter and Siegel were mailbombed, and received immense amounts of abuse. However, nobody was able to stop this practice of massive crossposting, and it soon became very common. This so called “spam” was one of the reasons why Usenet newsgroups became steadily less useful in the following years.

Although there is some disagreement, this post is pretty widely regarded as the first ever piece of spam. The technique was established. Some sort of automated script would be used to send the same message to a vast number of different recipients. Spam soon spread to other applications of the internet. I remember receiving my first piece of e-mail spam a year or so later. It came from an AOL address and I was so outraged that I sent a message to the postmaster at AOL, and received a sympathetic reply saying that they were doing everything they could do to stop this. Sadly, as I now know, they could not.

What I did not expect was that e-mail spamming would grow to such an extent that e-mail would be barely useful as a tool, which is where we are today. The interesting bits of the internet would move from public forums like Usenet to private sites such as blogs, which although not entirely immune from spam, seem to be doing a better job of fighting it than did more public forums such as Usenet. Spam filters would become ferocious, eating plenty of legitimate e-mail as well as spam. Proposals on the table to fight spam involve such suggestions as authenticating all e-mail, only allowing e-mail to be sent via approved servers from big companies, charging for all e-mail, and other such proposals that typically involve a loss of privacy and convenience. Various systems (such as the Turing codes used in the comments system on this blog) are used to determine that messages were sent by real human beings and not programs. Many people now only look carefully at e-mail that comes from known recipients, which eliminates or at least reduces one of the great joys of the internet, that it is possible to be contacted and to contact interesting people all over the world without an introduction and with a general assumption of goodwill. Instead, our e-mail boxes are filled with awful crap from the porn industry and other dubious semi-criminal and indeed fully-criminal organisations.

While somebody else would have no doubt invented spam soon after if the two Arizona lawyers had not, Mr Canter and Ms Siegel have the distinction of being the people who did it. For a brief while they managed to champion themselves in sections of the mass media as brave souls who were bringing capitalism to all the hopelessly utopian hippies on the internet – I even saw them being interviewed on CNN once, and they actually published a book explaining the virtues of spamming to other people. However, it soon became clear that they were a pair of bottom feeders. Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel had been suspended from the Florida bar in 1987 for dishonesty, and in 1988 Canter had resigned permanently from the bar in Florida after being charged with “neglect, misrepresentation, misappropriation of client funds and perjury”, and he didn’t get many CNN interviews after this became widely known. Having moved from Arizona to Tennessee, he was disbarred there in 1997, and his spamming was given as one of the reasons why. He and Siegel were divorced in 1996, and Siegel died in 2000. For the first time since the fourteenth century, a new (tenth) circle of hell was deemed necessary, and Satan created this new form of eternal damnation especially for “spammers”, intially for her. (At least I hope he did). As far as I know, Canter is still alive and living in California. Although there has been speculation on the precise nature of his relationship to Satan, I think that it is relatively simple, and that he will one day join his former wife as a tenant of hell. One can hope.

(Thanks to slashdot for reminding me of the anniversary).

5 comments to Spam is ten years old today.

  • Alex

    One stepping stone to reducing the amount of spam can be found here: http://spf.pobox.com/

    The nice thing about SPF is that it is entirely voluntary, costs nothing, and requires no government intervention.

    It is not, and does not claim to be, the *ahem* final solution to the problem of spam, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

  • If you use Windows, what you need is a program called K9. It’s free, it’s effective, and since I’ve begun using it it has sequestered 98% of the spam sent to me without sequestering a single legitimate message. You can get it here:


    It’s easy to set up and works extremely well.

  • Mark Ellott

    I use Mailwasher Pro (Link). A variation on a theme – it will bounce unwanted emails as if your account doesn’t exist. Like other systems, it can be trained and the user can define filters. There is a freeware version available. Seems SPAM has generated a whole industry of ant-SPAM software…

  • Michael,

    How boring would the online world become without abusive human behavior as represented by Internet spam to talk or rage about.

    No conferences on spam or businesses to fight email abuse from filters to routers and everything in between.

    And all the development time spent on designing new solutions to plug the security hole in sending email or otherwise deal with spam.

    Publishers publishing, lawyers suing, legislators legislating, developers developing and the list goes on and on.

    What would we do? And were would be without our Technorati, Feedster, online blogging and the like?

    I am reminded of Rumpole of the Old Bailey as he raised a glass of his favorite claret at the pub to toast the criminal class.

    Of course, it is a serious subject and SPF along with the Turn Tide Router do hold promise.

    But still, a world without abuse … nothing to fight about …

    I mean what would I do without all the wonderful opportunities in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, or Kenya and elsewhere. And thank you for reminding me to take my daily pill to ensure proper growth and fortitude of that certain body part.

    Wishing you well on this 10th Anniversary,

    Kind regards,

    John Glube

  • David Gillies

    I think spam will be beaten one day fairly soon. It’s pure economics – reduce the rate of return on spamming below that which is commercially viable and it will stop. It’s an arms race right now but eventually anti-spam techniques will drive its efficacy below break-even.

    By the way, I cooked up a bit of C++ code that can reverse engineer your Turing numbers. Took me an hour or so.