Blocking excessive email: right or wrong?

This past week America Online made the historic move towards blocking incoming email from several Internet domains. Claiming that the originator was spamming its members, it took the rather unusual step of removing the connection between its computers and the ones running these domains. The end result is that a corporation was blocked from sending his massive mailing to AOL'ers. The messages were advertisements of the corporation's services.

Now, as someone who takes the first amendment seriously, I tend to get a bit worried when things like this happen, regardless of the content of the messages. However, something else happened in the past week that made me rethink my automatic response: a friend of mine got spammed with thousands of messages.

My friend, a fellow journalist, was listed in a message along with many others, including the President of the US and others more noticeable than he. The message encouraged others to spam this broad list of email accounts for various actions that these individuals had taken separately against the common good of the Internet. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your perspective), people did respond to this diatribe, to the point where my friend had to turn off his account while things settled down.

Now back to the first amendment: does the right of free speech mean that I can send 1,000 postcards to the President when I am unhappy about something he says? Certainly, you might say, although you would think that the Secret Service would start to get interested in my postal habits. What about when it is someone that isn't really a public figure? Less clear, although I would guess it too would be covered by the first amendment.

How about calling someone 1,000 times in a row on the phone? Here we have harassment laws, and it clearly falls outside the realm of free speech. So is sending multiple email messages more like sending postal mail or phone calls? You got me, I'm not a lawyer.

Personally, email is my lifeblood and I don't want anyone messing with it. I know I'd be pretty pissed if something like that happened to me, and don't envy my friend a bit. But I sure wish cyberspace was a nicer place to live than the real world.

Back to the Oregon DMV

In WI#35, I mentioned the issues surrounding publishing the entire Oregon DMV license plate database on the web, and asked you all to comment on whether it was ethical and legitimate for Aaron Nabil to post this information. My goal was to see if my community of readers could agree.

The results are in, and there is no agreement on Nabil's actions -- not even close. Indeed, the distribution of responses was completely bimodal -- with strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Many of you thought that what was Nabil had done was completely right, and others thought he was completely wrong. I got comments such as "right on, this is the kind of thing that will encourage more people to use the net" to "I thought what Nabil did was stupid." There was no agreement whatsoever, underlining my thesis that this was a tricky issue for any community to develop an ethical policy out of.

Does this spell doom for our cyber community? Not at all -- in fact, it is a healthy thing, showing that our community is still finding its own way in the cyberworld. But given the wide range of opinion expressed (and I thank all of you that took the time to write in), any of us will have a hard time expressing any conclusions about cyber-community values in the near term.

Awards, sitekeeping, and self-promotion department

This week my latest opinion column is up at Avatar's magazine web site. The column is about peer web servers and how to manage them and plan for them. Avatar is an on-line zine published by Fawcett geared towards developers of interactive on-line applications.

Also on-line is my first column called "Drill Down" for c|net's new news.com web site. The column will appear each Tuesday and talk about Intranet issues. This one covers the issues surrounding using web graphical interfaces on a broad array of applications.

Next week is Interop, and I hope to see you there. I wanted to tell you about some of the things I'm involved in at the show in Atlanta.

First up is a all-day tutorial that Ed Tittel and I are doing on web site management. The idea behind this tutorial (which is offered Monday as part of the regular education program of the dotCom conference) is to help someone once they have gotten their first web server up and running. What do they do now? How about managing the entire content creation process, analyzing their log files, and keeping the site fresh and current. Here is an advance copy of our presentation materials, and if you are interested in having us come and teach the course at your location, let me know.

Wouldn't you like to know whether Microsoft or Netscape's web browsers and servers are faster? Well, now you can, provided you are at the show floor Wednesday through Friday. As many of you know, I have been working together with Keylabs to test products, most recently a series of web servers that was published by c|net in May. Keylabs has decided to take this a step further, and show how anyone can setup and conduct similar tests via a web browser over the Internet. At the booth, Keylabs staff will demonstrate how you can control their 100-node testing network via the Internet. I urge you to stop by. As far as I know, it is the first time a test lab will be remotely controlled across the Internet.

Finally, my awards department. I've been giving out humorous and semi- serious "awards" over the past year for both good and bad web site design. Lately, I've seen that with others doing a better job, it is far harder for me to find that exceptionally good or bad site. So to try to revive things, Mary E. S. Morris has suggested I start a new category of awards, called "drammies" after the substance that one generally needs after experiencing rapid random movement.

So many sites are using moving images these days that it is more than distracting, it is close to an illness. We are talking about beyond the blink tag to using animated GIFs and server push technologies. To make note of the most awful uses, the drammies will be mentioned in these missives from time to time.

Our first award goes to www.cybertracker.comís WebNdex page. This page is full of so many moving objects and changing colors that it really needs a major overhaul. I welcome any nominations from you as always.

This essay is composed in HTML and can be read in your browser. This is not always a simple process, and I'll be happy to provide help if I can. If you are getting this directly from me, or if someone is forwarding it to you, and you want to change that situation, let me know. Subscriptions are always free of charge. Entire contents copyrighted 1996 by David Strom.

David Strom
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