Hit reply to answer: dealing with unsolicited emails


Quote of the week: Spamming and mailbombing defintely ought to be crimes. If you knowingly transmit 10,000 mail messages in a one-hour period to a particular host, I ought to be able to call the police and have you arrested.
-- interview with Carl Malamud in this month's Wired.

One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet people like Carl Malamud. Carl has been at the forefront of a variety of interesting things, including starting up the first Internet radio station, writing books about various unsung Internet pioneers, and helping to build out Asian Internet infrastructure. Carl and I recently worked together for a mutual client, First Virtual Holdings. He will be off to Keio University in Japan later this summer as a professor.

Given the recent Georgia federal district court decision that voids a state law making it a crime to send anonymous emails, I asked him to expand on the above and here is what he has to say:

From: Carl Malamud (carl@media.org)
To: David Strom (david@strom.com)
Subj: The Antispam and Family Values Act of 1997

If your email box looks like mine, then you probably have messages for a cure for aids, a new concept in multi-level marketing or an unparalled opportunity to buy a stock which somehow escaped notice from the big boys on Wall Street.

The problem isn't unsolicited email but the fact that with most of this drivel you can't reply to the senders. There ought to be a law. If you send email, you should use a real "from" address. I don't care if it's a handle, I just want to be able to have my reply delivered to the sender.

Some of the best things to happen to me have started with email from strangers. I met my graphic designer for the world's fair when she sent me email asking if she could use some audio files we had produced for Santa Claus. The mail looked interesting, so I hit reply and sent an answer.

But that's the rub with the spam I get on a daily basis. With most of the spam, you can't answer. Look at the headers: from noonehere@123.com or makemoneyfast@fakedomain.com or, worst of all, joenewbie@aol.com. Poor Joe Newbie gets the first few hundred outraged answers, calls AOL, and they shut down the account and give him a new one.

The all-too-typical spam these days follows a formula. Amass a big mailing list, get a temporary account via an unscrupulous (or uncaring) service provider, fake the to and from headers, and then put a fax number or snailmail address in the body of the message. Then, wait for the 0.01% of your more naive Internet users to respond and begin the process of removing excess money from their wallets.

(Occasionally, I get lucky and the would-be- marketeer puts an 800 number in the body of the message. Yes! Call them up in the middle of the night and leave the phone off the hook and let those phone charges go click, click, click. It's the digital equivalent of sending a blank postage-paid reply back to the NRA.)

There is nothing wrong with bulk or commercial email. A fake return address, though, isn't fair. All the costs have shifted to the consumers: we pay to download the message, AOL pays to be the unwitting transit provider, and the huckster waits for that magic 0.01% of America that thinks Gilligan's Island was shot on location.

As I said, there ought to be a law. If the people selling the latest miracle information send out one million email messages in the hopes of trapping 100 suckers, the game becomes a little more fair if they have a valid mailbox to hold the 500,000 remove messages that come back.

In the real world, it is illegal to send bulk postal mail with a fake return address. If you send out bulk faxes, I have the right to call or fax you back and demand that you take me off your list. Why should the Internet be any different? If you send mail, you shouldn't hide behind an invalid mailbox. If I tell you to stop harassing me with repeated commercial mailings, you should be required to take me off your list.

While we're at it, why don't we take care of the most extreme example of spamming, the mailbomber. If you send me 1,000 messages in 10 minutes in a deliberate and premeditated attempt to smother my hard drive, shouldn't I be able to call the police? Malicious mailbombing ought to be at least a Class A misdemeanor!

Maybe the U.S. Congress could take a few minutes off from touching up their personal web pages and do something nice for my modem. Sure, we won't be able to stop off- shore spam havens from springing up, but it would be a concrete start. If a U.S. resident tries to route mail via some island, it would be just as illegal as routing a fax overseas to circumvent the fax abuse laws. The Internet may melt international boundaries, but we still have laws that say what conduct is considered appropriate for Americans doing business. And, who knows, maybe other countries will follow suit.

copyright 1997 by Carl Malamud.

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

My latest column for the July issue of Mobile Computing and Communications tells the tale of how I have come to rely upon the cyber-cafes to get real Internet-related work done. For relatively little dough, you can get lots more bandwidth and lots less hassle than trying to use your laptop from your hotel room.

Last month I was interviewed for the print publication The Star, published in Malaysia, for a feature series entitled "Online publications: far away, so close."

David Strom
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