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Gypsy & Willy - The Original Libertarian Bloggers

How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Gypsy & Willy

No. 2 (Series No. 193)

Spam

October 26, 1998

A couple of months ago, we published a column completely devoted to describing a nutty incident that occurred to Gypsy in a local restaurant (see: I want my wife back!). The article was intended to stir up sympathy among our readers on the Web. In particular, we urged readers to put their thoughts in an email and send it off to the restaurant, CC'ing us a copy as well, in order to put pressure upon Famous Dave's to apologize and to explain the incident. As Web campaigns go, this one was highly successful. Several hundred people wrote to Famous Dave's from among the many thousands who read the essay. Many of these responses resulted from people "chain lettering" the essay to friends and acquaintances. One man in New Jersey indicated...in his letter to Famous Dave's, that he had received the column...via email...from no fewer than three sources! One reader of the essay spammed it to a couple of thousand news groups and registered it with many search engines. Such is a "prairie fire" on the Internet...

Note for the information of those of you who participated in this effort: while the attorney for Famous Dave's indicated that they were quite unhappy with this campaign to pressure them, they have refused, to date, either to apologize or to adequately explain the reason for this occurrence. At first, their attorney said that the perpetrator claimed that Gypsy had "pushed him around" while out of view of witnesses, that she was so "obviously" intoxicated that the bartender had been instructed not to serve her and that she and Lisa had failed to pay their bill. I pointed out that:

  1. At no time were Gypsy and the assailant out of view of witnesses.
  2. That Gypsy ordered and was drinking coffee, making the claim of being "cut off" from drinking a moot point. Furthermore, when the waiter took their order, he made no mention of any restrictions on what Gypsy could or could not have.
  3. That not only had they paid their bill, but, upon being ejected, Lisa demanded AND WAS GIVEN A REFUND on what they had ordered but not finished. It is hard to get a refund on a bill not paid!
In addition, I said plainly that the man was lying.

"Be careful whom you are calling a liar!" warned the attorney.

"Oh?" I replied. "If you would be so kind as to get those claims to me in a sworn affidavit, I will publish them on the Web verbatim. In addition, I will then call him a liar publicly."

Not only was this offer rejected, but subsequent assertions (according to the attorney) by the bully went more like this: "In my professional judgement, the woman was so agitated as to present a clear danger to herself and others, forcing me to detain her."

You don't have to be an attorney to smell what is going on here. What to do about it is quite another matter. To date, we still have not retained an attorney. However, I was advised by a friend, who is an attorney, to make some monetary claims in order to give them a position from which to negotiate. Thus, I "demanded," in addition to an HONEST explanation and an apology, $100 per day for Gypsy for however long it takes from the date of the incident until they settle, $500 for Lisa (pain and suffering from seeing her mother arrested and handcuffed) and $400 for me. The last sum was to pay me one day's wages to undo the "damage" I had done to their reputation by publishing an account of the incident on the Web. This "demand" was rejected out of hand and no further conversations have taken place. At this point I am not sure that I CAN undo the damage in a single day. The longer they wait, the harder it will be.

What we did next was to start to spam the essay to a list of 10,000,000 email addresses which we had purchased some time ago but never used. We sent out about 25,000 letters per day, about 75% of which reached a "live" email address. Recently, our ISP requested that we discontinue this spam and we reluctantly agreed. Their problem was that they had received two or three threats to place them on the Black Hole List because of my spamming. The Black Hole List is a form of blacklisting extortion practiced by a minority of ISP's on the Internet (see: Punishing the victims! and Punishing the victims! - II) in order to "stop unsolicited commercial email." What this extortion racket does is notify cooperating ISP's to block transmission "through" their Net nodes of any traffic to or from the blacklisted site. This results, in theory, for any email sent, Web pages requested or any other form of Internet traffic to or from the blacklisted node, in its being rerouted around the blocking sites. However, in fact, it usually results in a great deal of lost traffic and unreceived email, a crippling act of sabotage on the erring ISP's customers.

The zealots who practice this form of techno-terrorism justify their behavior on the grounds that spam is universally despised and that the blocking nodes...owned and operated by privately run companies...have every right to do WHATEVER THEY PLEASE with traffic routed to or through their sites. They plaintively assert that the Internet is NOT public property but belongs entirely to the relatively few people who RUN it.

Leaving aside this latter rather astonishing claim...which seems, on its surface, to totally deny the cooperative nature of the Internet...let's examine the claim that spam is "universally" despised.

There is no question that many, many people are vehemently opposed to spam. My instincts tell me that most of them are reacting purely to the annoyance of having to deal with so much "junk" email. It is true that our own personal received spam exceeds the amount of "legitimate" email by a goodly amount. We suspect that this is true for anyone who has been on the Net for more than a few months and who does not employ filtering software to block some of it. And, it IS annoying! Especially annoying are all those get-rich-quick scams and MLM's that are floating around the Web.

Still, we do not try to block any of the spam. Why not? Well, about 5% of what we receive is interesting or valuable enough to cause us to investigate further. The other 95% quickly...within seconds of receipt...gets archived (we delete only duplicates) for possible use later, for research, for the sake of "history."

Furthermore, I have detected a distinct lessening of the most annoying forms of spam. You could ascribe this to the avid attempts of the true-believing anti-spammers for this, by I suspect the real reason is much simpler. The spammers aren't getting any results! Or, alternatively, they are not getting enough response to justify the cost of the spam. What's that you say? Spam is "free" to the sender?

No way, Josť!

We can tell you from personal experience that the real cost of sending spam is quite high. Cheaper than snail mail? Yes. Compared to any previous form of mass marketing, spam is quite cheap. But FREE it is not! First of all it takes time, lots of time. Unless you are employing some form of "stealth" software...which actually steals bandwidth and server time from unwitting hosts and is already as illegal as any other type of theft or fraud...you have to send out the spam in groups of about 1250 each, as this is the maximum mailing list size of most email programs. Second, it takes time to transmit large quantities of email. My estimate is that you can not send more than 100,000 pieces per day without completely bogging down the email server of the host. Furthermore, the time necessary to process all the bounces and "removes" from your email list is considerable, even if the process is partially automated, as we were able to do since we have advanced computer skills. It took us about an hour a day to send out and process the returns from 25,000 pieces. And we experienced "only" a 25% reject rate and way less than 1% requesting "remove."

Notice that last number. Only .2% (2 per 1000) of the recipients asked to be removed from the list. Many of them were QUITE vehement, however, saying things like "DON'T EVER SEND ME ANY MORE SHIT LIKE THAT!" or "I DON'T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOU OR YOU AND YOUR BITCH WIFE!" suggesting that the strength of emotion in the anti-spammers makes up for their small numbers. By the way, when we sent out only the URL of the essay rather than the essay itself...which we did as an experiment...the number of people requesting removal was only .02%...TEN TIMES less. However, the number of people actually reading and responding positively to the essay was also quite a bit less. So it goes...

We realize that our personal experience may not be typical. We weren't selling anything or attempting to perpetrate some form of fraud. Furthermore, many more people than those who openly objected may be opposed to spam. The state of Washington, home of beloved Microsoft, has already passed a law restricting the use of mass email. Furthermore, the techno-terrorists have demonstrated that they can force ISP's to their knees by simple extortion from a few individuals.

Whether or not spam is universally despised, it is clear that most people think there is a spam "problem." It is certainly true that the cost of spam is born by the users of the Net. While the true-believers grossly exaggerate the cost to the recipient and minimize the cost to the sender, it is true that the costs ARE distributed, that there is some cost to the user and, since it is uninvited, it is completely unwanted. But, is that not true of ALL media? Do you really want ALL that junk snail mail? Do you enjoy unsolicited phone calls while you are trying to have dinner? Are you one of those rare individuals who LIKES TV advertising and NEVER "zaps" it with your handy-dandy controller? What percentage of newspaper and magazine advertising do you actually read? Laws were successfully passed against "junk" FAXes, using many of the same arguments being advanced for junk email, but was that really such a good idea...especially now, a few short years later, that the Net is replacing the FAX?

Along the same lines, we wonder just why anti-spammers are so nasty about it. It seems to us that of all media, the Internet makes it easiest to reject unwanted input. How much more difficult it is to get mailers to stop sending you junk snail mail! You must first locate the actual mailers...who may differ from those about whose wares they are writing...then write them a letter requesting removal from their mailing list. Even then, they may not comply, since it is in the interest of the actual mailing entity to advertise the size of its address database to potential customers. Or how about newspapers and magazines? Try requesting that they send you a copy without the advertising. Radio and TV? Not a chance that you can do a blessed thing about advertising on those media. Compared to these older media, unwanted email is a positive JOY to deal with. It takes less than five seconds to reply to a spam with the word "remove" in the subject and costs far less than one cent in bandwidth expense. We suspect that the mystery of anti-spam "rage" remains to be discovered by future analysts of the psyche.

It is also true that spam eats up "valuable" bandwidth. Just how valuable is that bandwidth and what is the cost of email? Well, the bandwidth consumed by a single email is trivial compared to the average Web page download. Furthermore, you could probably deliver 1,000,000 emails for the bandwidth cost of a single episode of Baywatch. Now I like looking at big boobs as much as the next guy and Gypsy doesn't mind the sight of an occasional tight-butt male, but we shudder to think that Webbies, in our annoyance at having to deal with junk email, will allocate all future bandwidth to those who would inundate us with more-of-the-same.

The bottom line is this. Are you willing to surrender the current freedom of operation on the Net to protect the Big Boys of the world? Are you ready to give up the possibility of sending a message to everyone in the world...perhaps a political message about freedom...in order to insure that you will never again be "annoyed" by unwanted email? You had better think long and hard about this one. If you "vote" for severe restrictions, you may very well get MUCH more than you bargained for when the political dum-dums get their hands on it.

There have been many proposals put forth to restrict and control junk email...not to mention the efforts of cowboy vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to "protect" us from this "scourge" with techno-terrorism. Some propose a levy on each piece of email...that is, raise the price of spamming. Presumedly you and I would be willing to pay a penny apiece to send a letter...way more than it costs...in order to raise the cost of sending 1,000,000 pieces to a "respectable" $10,000. Well, I can tell you one thing. By doing so you will insure that the only junk mail you will get in the future will be from the likes of AT&T, McDonalds and Disney. I suppose that might be better than getting yet another "Earn $50,000 in TWO WEEKS!" or "We have the HOTTEST BABES on the Web!" message...but are you SURE?

However, there is a very vocal minority who wants to banish spam entirely from the Web via legislation and/or vigilantism. They wish to restrict large mailings only to those who have already compiled a mailing list of "volunteer" recipients. They assume...correctly...that this kind of disincentive would really put a crimp on fly-by-night operations...or, if you wish, to small operations like the one we undertook. However, I believe it would hardly put a dent in large scale fraud, since it is relatively easy...if you have the resources...to move your operation out of the jurisdiction of the United States of America's legal system, sending all of us Netizens...and all the rabid CEBBTO's as well...back to square one as far as spam is concerned. In this sense, the "War on Spam" strongly resembles the "War on Drugs."

We have a better suggestion. Set up a service similar to INTERNIC...the enterprise that registers URL's and provides directory lookup services for all the ISP's of the world. This new hypothetical service would register email addresses for a small fee...to be included in the registration fee of a typical ISP...and make the resulting databases readily available to everyone in the world. Along with the registration of the email address, each user could set filter parameters for the type of email that he or she would "accept" on a routine basis. It should also be quite simple for users to alter this information, should they change their minds...a VERY frequent occurrence in a new medium like the Net. Then ISP's could set up filters to insure that each customer gets only the type of email he or she desires...at least at that particular moment in time. More importantly, spammers could access the database and send its product only to those who will accept delivery. What legitimate spammer wishes to have huge volumes of bounced messages returned to sender? Who wants to send messages to people who will not read them?

I think such a system would satisfy the desires of the vast majority of Internet users, would be completely in line with the voluntary nature of the Net, would preserve ALL our freedom and would, incidentally, be an ENORMOUS service to the world, providing the "phone book" of email addresses that we all wish existed. What do you think?

Talk to you later...


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