Stop, Thief!

Sending unsolicited junk e-mail is not only annoying, it is shameful fiscal abuse of the network we all pay for.

by Joel Snyder

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. The bloodsucking leeches of the Internet have attacked, and they're slowly destroying the foundation of the network I love. Who are they? Those supposed entrepreneurs who think that I should pay to receive their advertisements for everything from Russian mail-order brides to customized license plate frames.

You're a lucky soul if you've never gotten junk e-mail trying to tell you about the wonders of a new kind of multilevel marketing opportunity guaranteed to turn your $500 investment into a $50,000 profit. I certainly have. In fact, I've been saving them before writing this column, and I've gotten an average of two pieces of unsolicited commercial junk mail each day for the past month.

How did I get so lucky? I suspect it's because I post to Usenet newsgroups once in a while. The way to build a huge mailing list is to collect Usenet News postings. Every posting has a return e-mail address, which means that the 100,000-plus postings every day to Usenet newsgroups will generate massive volumes of new addresses. It's a little pyramid scheme all on its own. I have very little esteem for those who build enormous mailing lists from newsgroups simply for the purpose of addressing unwanted junk mail.

I could rail about how these people are invading my mailbox and disturbing my privacy and peace of mind. I could rant about the unscrupulous nature of the offers, generally involving pyramid schemes designed to make money by selling poor- quality goods or services at high prices to other suckers. I could even take the high road, arguing that the modern-day carpetbaggers are debasing this powerful and novel new network by using it as little more than a new way to push such mind-numbing drivel as infomercials on the benefits of hair transplantation.

But I'm not, because even though this is all true, there's something else going on, something more even more hideous, unfair, and vile.


The scoundrels dumping garbage all over the Internet, in private e-mail, mailing lists, and newsgroups, are stealing. They're stealing from you and me and every other Internet user. They're stealing when they make each and every one of us pay so that they can advertise their junk.

In economics, the Internet is known as a "public good." It is something for which we all pay, for the good of all. Economics also makes a strong statement about initiatives for the public good: They rarely work. Why? Because there is a strong incentive to abuse a project that serves the public good. The more massive the public-good project, the greater the incentive to abuse it. And the Internet is nothing if not massive.

Price Sensitive

E-mail is not like paper mail. In the real world, the sender of a piece of mail--junk or otherwise--has a significant marginal cost. Every single piece of mail has to be printed, stuffed into an envelope, addressed, and stamped. Only then will the post office attempt delivery. Marginal cost is the price of sending the next piece of mail. The first letter costs a lot; the second, and all others, are cheaper. If you're very careful and send a lot of mail, you can get your marginal cost down to about $0.25 per piece of mail. Most businesses pay closer to $1 for everything that goes out the door.

On the Internet, you don't have to pay the entire cost of transporting each e-mail message or newsgroup posting. Someone else pays to move it around, and everyone who gets a copy has to pay to read it. More importantly, the marginal cost is almost insignificant. It's as easy to send a message to 1,000 people as it is to send it to one person. That's because each person who receives an e-mail message pays the bulk of the cost of delivering and storing that message.

The high marginal cost of paper mail is what keeps my mailbox from overflowing with junk. People aren't going to send postal mail casually. They'll try to identify the people who will most likely welcome their advertisement, and they'll prune the mailing list to eliminate duplicates. They'll be careful about waste because they're wasting their own resources.

The Internet was built in an era of trust and still depends on trust. Unfortu-nately, some bad apples are abusing that trust. They think nothing of wasting Internet bandwidth and other people's money to spread the word about profits to be made in real estate foreclosures.

I hope you're asking, "What can I do about this crime?" It isn't too late. There are still ways to keep the obnoxious junk mailers at bay. The best approach is to make sure the malodorous marketeers find massive mailings an unprofitable enterprise. If someone sends you some junk mail, your immediate reaction should be to forward it right back at them and let them know they shouldn't send you any more of their nonsense.

Forgery and Fakery

This isn't always easy, however. Many of the recent missives I've received have had forged return addresses that are illegal, point to nonexistent mailboxes, or otherwise don't point back to the true originator. I take this as a sure sign that the pusillanimous perpetrator knows that he or she is doing something wrong. It also means you can't offer the noxious sender the feedback they so justly deserve. The truly evil ones don't just forge illegal addresses; they make the mail look like it came from a real address.

Detecting forgeries is hard. In fact, with some kinds of forgeries, it's impossible. If you're not sure who really sent the message about gas-powered garden weeders, be wary about too strong a reaction. Similarly, be careful of calling any 800 numbers contained in these messages. It's bad enough to flood some innocent victim with angry e-mail; publishing an 800 number where every call costs the receiver money is downright criminal.

This doesn't mean you should take the assaults lying down. Look at the headers of the e-mail to see if you can tell where the message was injected into the Internet. If you can, forward it to the postmaster at that site for action. (The postmaster is the person responsible for orderly flow of electronic mail at each site. Internet standards require that every site have a postmaster mailbox.)

Good postmasters don't allow their sites to be used as byways for forged mail; bad postmasters deserve to have this pointed out to them. In fact, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are a good place to put some pressure. ISPs like to divert attention to the true culprits when this happens, but they share some of the blame: Few ISPs have made any effort to keep their customers from flooding the Internet with unwelcome and unsolicited junk mail. If postmasters hear from enough angry mail recipients, we might see changes in their systems that will make it harder for the pests to abuse the network.

Another approach to the junk mail juggernaut won't be popular with most folks after the little tÉte-ł-tÉte between the Internet community and the Congress over the Communications Decency Act parts of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (see News and "Witness to History," p. 96), but government regulation is an option.

We already have fairly strict rules about unsolicited faxes and telephone calls. Some of the principles at work there could be extended to e-mail and newsgroup postings as well. With some guidance from the online community, it's possible to build legislation that deters such antisocial behavior.

I may sound like a Marxist (or left-wing liberal), but if we are to maintain the integrity and usefulness of the Internet for the public good, we must adjust the cause-and-effect incentives to deter those who would abuse it. *IW*

Joel Snyder is a senior partner at Opus One, an Internet consulting company in Tucson, Ariz.
Reprinted from Internet World magazine Vol. 7 No. 9, (c) 1996 Mecklermedia Corporation. All rights reserved.