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Thank the spammers...

By William R. James.

Preface
Thank the spammers
Epilogue


PREFACE

Spammers have screwed up so much of what was once usable. Yet most users of the Internet are entirely unaware of it. They see spam only as part of being online. They think it's like other advertising, and some even think it's their ISP doing it.

William R. James
March 10, 2003

THANK THE SPAMMERS

Oddly enough, I remember a time when closing a relay was considered extremely rude. In the early days of the Internet, everyone who connected to it took some responsibility in helping to ensure that all the Internet's traffic was routed to its destination. Some places had better connections than others and some connections were unavailable at times for various reasons. So part of connecting your machine to the network was sharing the load and donating little bits of bandwidth here and there so the Internet ran smoothly for everyone. Relays were important because sometimes a user's home server was unavailable.

Then came the spammers. Because they abused the relays, like they abuse everything else, the relays had to be turned off. They found that they could abuse the relays and cost others hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but it prevented them from losing the $10 dialup account or free NetZero account. It's like a thief who steals a $1000 wedding ring with priceless sentimental value just to sell it for a $20 cocaine fix. Old software which ran perfectly well had to be replaced just to close the hole which was so important to leave open before. Yeah, thank the spammers for that.

But that's not the only thing the spammers have ruined. Free ISPs were growing. These services weren't perfect, they came with ads which were intentionally in the way, but that paid for the service, so it was OK. Over all, NetZero's service was actually pretty good even if it did have that open window in the way. But spammers learned that they could abuse those too, and their mind-set is "abuse it quickly before it goes away" knowing that the abuse is what will make it go away. But each spammer wants to be the one to milk it dry before the next spammer does, and all of them combined make it useless. Thanks, spammers, thanks a lot.

Try querying any database which has email addresses anywhere in it. They have to either make it pay only, or make you type in something associated with an image before you can retrieve data. Why? Because spammers found out there were valid email addresses in them and started hammering the servers with automated software, grabbing the entire database, using up all the bandwidth 1000 times over, just to harvest a handful of addresses from it to abuse as well. So to defend themselves and keep their servers from crashing, database owners had to make it impossible to query automatically. Thank the spammers.

And let's not forget Usenet. Munging addresses was once considered blatant abuse. Now very few people post with a valid address. If you want to discuss something off-line or off-topic with a poster, you either can't do it via email or you have to manually "decode" and type in their address. Thank spammers for that too.

The spammers claim to be running legitimate businesses, but legitimate businesses who ask for email addresses when you download their product get 99.9% garbage addresses now. Sign up for anything online and you have to use an email address which you don't expect to keep. The trust is rightfully gone. Again, that's something else for which you can thank spammers.

If you happen to run an authentic, legitimate business, you can't even post your own email address on your web site anymore. If you do, any addresses you publish for use by customers are instead harvested and added to thousands of spammers' lists. They become no longer usable in a very short time. So even though it may mean fewer orders, and the customer has to type more and may lose trust in your business because you can't give them an email address, you have to use contact forms and hide your address. Thanks, spammers.

And what about those contact forms? They are also targets for abuse by spammers. Spammers go to a lot of trouble to find web forms with security holes they can exploit so they can send their spam through your server. You pay for the bandwidth. You get blocked. You maybe even lose your web hosting. But the spammer got a million spams through before it was knocked down, so never mind the cost. It was "free" just like the spamming ads say. Thank the spammers for that too.

How about dialup pools? Many ISPs use them. You might be using BellSouth, Earthlink, NetZero, Tekplex or any one of the others and dialing into the same pool of modems. One spammer might abuse that so much that others have to deny emails from the pool just to protect their systems. But the spammer got his unsolicited and unwanted garbage sent out while it lasted, so he's happy even if everyone else is now having problems in his wake. Thank the spammers for that one as well.

If you email from a server with a dialup connection, much of the world will not accept your email even if neither your server nor any other server in your network block has ever been used for spamming. But it's impossible to know in advance that it won't be, so ISPs almost never allow mail servers on dialups. So no matter how legitimate, you can't operate a mail server without a permanent connection. Thanks, spammers.

AOL announced a few days ago that they finally hit the "one billion emails rejected" mark. In one day they dumped over a billion spams from their servers. And that doesn't include the spams which got through to their customers. AOL estimates that something like $5 per month of each user's fee goes to pay the costs of handling the bandwidth and other associated costs of handling all the spam. Gee thanks, spammers!

And what of freedom? It's becoming less and less acceptable to use anything online without constant monitoring by someone, be it an ISP, a government agency, or merely a librarian. If you want to use a computer online, you have to ID yourself. Your actions have to monitored to an increasing degree. Will the day come when government reads all your email and decides your rights online? Perhaps. When that day comes, thank the spammers for it.

And you wonder why I fight the spammers? I wonder why you don't. Not necessarily you specifically, but the millions of users of the Internet. If only 2% fought them hard, if only 10% of the ISPs blocked ALL traffic to and from spam friendly hosts (not just email, but web pages too, for example), the spammers would have no one willing to connect them. So why isn't that happening? Have people become such sheep that they just accept abuse and the concept that ruination is the natural path? Or are too many people just too lazy to become involved? I'm not sure. Whatever the cause, there will always be spammers and similar thieves looking for a quick buck, and unscrupulous ISPs willing to cater to them while they abuse if they can get away with it. But when email is no longer usable, when people have to go back to long distance telephone bills or carrier pigeon, thank the spammers.

Then again, thank those who were willing to do business with the spammers, buy their products, sell them connectivity, and host their web pages. Also, thank those who looked the other way and continued doing business with the ISPs who harbored the spammers. Is that you? If so, thanks. Thanks a lot. I hope whatever you got from it was worth it.

William R. James
March 8, 2003

EPILOGUE

Thank the Spammers started as a letter to my daughter after she had discovered her email was bouncing due to an open [mail server] relay on her ISP's network. After some explaining and discussion, I wrote it in attempt to explain the scope of the damage spammers and their supporters have done, and continue to do, to the Internet. She replied partly with the following, posted with her permission:

When I was working in relay, I relayed a call from some poor little old deaf lady who didn't understand why she couldn't get into her AOL account any more. The call was to AOL customer service, who (aside from the folks at Social Security) are the LEAST helpful, rudest people on the planet. Apparently somebody had hacked into her email account and sent 500 spam emails on three separate occasions in one day, so AOL shut down the account. She didn't understand what was going on, she kept insisting she hadn't been online in a week and she hadn't sent the emails, and AOL was basically telling her to stuff it.

So now you've got some little old deaf lady who just wants to IM her grandkids so she doesn't have to talk to them through a relay operator, and she can't do it because some jerk decided sending 1500 unsolicited emails was more important. I'm starting to understand why this ticks you off so much.

In case you aren't familiar with "relay" in the context used, it is a system which is used by the hearing impaired allowing them to use a telephone. The deaf person uses a terminal with the relay service. The person working the relay translates voice-to-text, and vice-versa, between the deaf caller and the party on the other end.

William R. James
March 11, 2003

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