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Those Bulk Email Blues

If you’ve been on the Internet for any length of time, the odds are excellent that you’ve received unsolicited email announcements and advertisements. These messages vary widely: one day you might receive information about a get-rich-quick scheme, the next an ad for an Internet service provider. Some messages are controversial and pernicious, including political harangues and hate-filled diatribes. Others are just odd, such as an ad for hand-knitted kitty-boots, or (I’m not making this up!) an announcement that extraterrestrials from Saturn want to set up a bottle-cap recycling program in New Jersey.

Although the problem isn’t new, the recent growth of the Internet has been accompanied by an explosive expansion in "bulk email" or "spam," and followed in recent months by an angry backlash. An entire industry is springing up around bulk email, and now the issues are headed for the courts. Although this article can’t discuss every aspect of bulk emailing, it does provide some background, and explains how to respond reasonably to junk email.

Pros — Since I’m personally inundated and annoyed by bulk email, I cannot claim to represent the viewpoints of those who send it. However, in discussing the topic with several people who condone bulk mailings, some rationales surprised me.

For the most part, bulk emailers believe they are providing a service by distributing information, thereby helping their recipients make informed decisions. In the United States, they believe their activities constitute free speech. Internationally, bulk email seems to be viewed as free enterprise that could only be curtailed by international trade agreements – agreements which, if they existed, would be nearly impossible to enforce. Further, in the U.S., bulk emailers feel the Internet is a public resource (since it was created in part with taxpayer monies), and that an email address is a matter of public record, like a street address. Many bulk emailers argue their activities should be encouraged since they’re an "improved" form of postal advertisements: they can be better targeted, take less time to deal with (mail messages can be deleted in a few seconds, and no physical object needs to be transported), and have less environmental impact, since no paper and little fuel is used to deliver them.

Almost universally, bulk emailers believe their activities are justified. Further, some are selective with their mailings, sending only 50 or 100 highly targeted messages. Some also work hard to prune their mailing lists of addresses or whole domains that object to their mailings.

Of course, many are much less conscientious, holding contempt for those who take issue with their activities, or arguing (often effusively) that objecting to bulk email is nothing more than economic, technological, and cultural elitism. There are also a few bulk emailers who are new to the Internet and seem to have no idea their actions might be problematic.

A few bulk emailers also make an interesting point: users who most strenuously object to bulk email tend to have been on the Internet for a few years, whereas new Internet users seem to have far fewer objections to bulk email. And here’s another surprise: unless a recipient actively objects to receiving a message, even the most conscientious of bulk emailers usually interpret that message as a success. They choose to believe that while the recipient may not have been interested in the material in that particular message, that recipient did not object to receiving it, and is thus a reasonable target for future mailings.

Cons — The arguments against bulk email are numerous and well-known; I’ll only summarize a few here. First, unlike postal mail, most Internet users pay to receive email at a flat rate, timed, or per-byte basis, so in many cases unwanted email is literally paid for by the recipient. Further, since the cost of bulk email is considerably lower than the cost of sending advertisements via postal mail, bulk email can be more easily abused and arrive in considerably higher volumes. Bulk email is also far more likely than postal advertisements to be inappropriate or personally offensive, not to mention in violation of state or local legislation. An argument can even be made that repeated targeting by bulk emailers constitutes harassment.

The most common objection to bulk email, however, is the annoyance. Most Internet users consider bulk email to be irritating and one of the Internet’s largest drawbacks. They may feel that unsolicited mailings violate their privacy or interfere with their effective use of the Internet.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is a bulk mailing gone bad. It’s possible for a poorly-conducted bulk mailing to deliver thousands of copies of a message to a single account. Another troubling case is a mailing (or the backlash from a mailing) which overwhelms an Internet site or forces it to go offline. Events like these are widely considered to be attacks on individuals or entire sites, and usually provoke hostile and resource-consuming responses, potentially impacting untold thousands of Internet users.

The Spam Industry — During the last two years, businesses and software products built around the bulk emailing concept have sprung into existence. Beginning with commercial endeavors by expert spammers who would sell themselves as hired guns to spread a message as widely as possible, the bulk email arena has lately been dominated by programmers and entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck. Some write programs that collect email addresses or that can perform bulk mailings to thousands of people in a few hours. Others collect and sell mailing lists, and still others offer complete bulk mailing services, setting up Internet sites as bulk email clearinghouses. Many of these endeavors are visible and public, and at least one is being taken to court.

Bulk emailers get your address using a number of methods:

  • Usenet trawling: Many bulk emailers use programs that scan all available Usenet newsgroups for email addresses, compile comprehensive lists, then remove duplicates. This is also used to create targeted mailing lists; for instance, a bulk emailer may assume that anyone posting in the comp.* hierarchy must be interested in computers. Similarly, geographically-specific lists can be created from Usenet groups related to cities or regions. Though scanning Usenet is an arduous task, any respectable computer can pull out thousands of addresses an hour. Ironically, services like AltaVista and Deja News make this process even easier for bulk emailers.

  • Provider-trawling: Although this tactic is most often applied to online services like CompuServe or America Online, bulk emailers use programs to scan member directories and discussion forums to generate lists of users of online services. Bulk emailers wanting to generate a list of users at large Internet providers (like Netcom or EarthLink) may sign on using a trial account, then use directory listings or programs like Finger to generate lists of valid usernames.

  • Mailing list trawling: Bulk emailers also scan large and popular mailing lists for email addresses. This tactic works best on large lists where lots of email addresses appear in the text of messages.

Collectively, these processes produce thousands of mailing lists, many of which overlap significantly. Removing your address from one doesn’t remove it from the others, and your address can easily be re-added. Some bulk emailers do handle list removals responsibly; however, overwhelmingly, these lists merely grow.

What Can I Do? — Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way eliminate bulk email. As the problem gets worse, you can expect services to appear offering spam-free email accounts, and email filtering software will become increasingly sophisticated. In the meantime, the most effective way to stop bulk email is to make your objections known:

  • Reply to the sender of the email, saying that you do not wish to receive such mailings, and that you object to such activities. If the message offers a way to remove yourself from a list, use it. Many addresses that bulk email appears to be sent from are forged, so be aware these messages may bounce.

  • Examine the headers of the message to determine the site where the message originated. (This information is usually in the bottommost "Received:" header line.) Although this information can be forged, it’s usually more useful than the names of intervening sites. Write a mail message to the username "abuse" or "postmaster" at that site, with a brief, polite note, the full headers of the message you received, and the message itself. Try to leave the subject line intact. This is the text I use to reply to junk email:

"I received the following unsolicited bulk email ("spam"), which apparently originated from your site. Please take appropriate action to ensure this doesn’t happen again."

Although you may not receive a response to these messages, Internet providers usually a warn a bulk emailer that the activity should stop. If the mailings continue, the provider will usually terminate the account.

  • Some Internet providers and online services have local email addresses or newsgroups where you can report bulk email messages. With enough information, the provider can then handle the matter for you. Check your provider’s or online service’s help system or customer service information.

In the event you receive bulk email from an Internet domain specifically set up to send bulk email, these tactics are likely to fail. If you’re familiar with utilities like Whois and Traceroute, you might be able to identify that site’s upstream providers and complain to them, but that’s too detailed to discuss here.

The Future of Bulk Email — The current inability to stop bulk emailers has led to calls for regulation, perhaps by modifying existing laws applying to the postal service or fax machines. Although the issues are very complex, here in the United States, communications law experts I spoke with generally agreed existing legislation would adapt poorly to email, particularly in the case of laws designed to prevent junk faxes. Of course, legislation passed here would be difficult to enforce within the country and wouldn’t apply elsewhere.

The first court cases regarding bulk email are getting underway now and will be watched closely by the online community. No matter what the outcome of these cases, the success of bulk emailers is likely to spawn services geared to eliminating bulk email. Already, there’s talk of building live, authenticated filters into email clients – every time you checked your mail, your mail program would check for a new set of anti-spam filters set up by your provider or perhaps by a subscription-based service anywhere on the Internet. With a small editorial staff and decent connectivity, providing frequently updated bulk email filters isn’t a technological challenge.

In the meantime, if you’re one of the few who likes bulk email… I know where you can get some great hand-knitted booties for your cat.

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