Unhappy Birthday, Spam

April 12, 2010

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
(Henry VI, Part 2 IV:2, Wm. Shakespeare)

Today is perhaps not one that lives in infamy, to borrow FDR’s words — but probably it should.  It was on this date, back in 1994, that two immigration lawyers, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, posted the first “spam” message to more than 6,000 USENET news groups. They did this to promote their law firm’s services to assist people in getting “green cards” (essentially, permits for immigrants to reside in the US legally for a certain time).

(For my younger readers: USENET was a pre-Web Internet phenomenon, comprising an enormous number of “news groups”, organized by topic.  Think of a Web discussion forum, all in plain text — having only dial-up was a bitch — and free of graphics, fonts, etc.  To make a real impression, you had to actually know what you were talking about, and be able to communicate it in writing.)

It is said that nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.  Certainly, nothing has stopped the inexorable growth of spam ever since.  Canter and Siegel have remained, as far as I know, entirely unapologetic; they even wrote an   instructional book, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway.  To give them (perverse) credit, there are not many people who can say they have pioneered the pollution of a whole new medium.

By most estimates, spam today accounts for something in excess of 90% of all Internet e-mail traffic.  It has of course spread to social networks, cell phones, and virtually every other medium of electronic communication.  And some of us old fogeys thought that junk (postal) mail was bad. The problem, of course, is an economic one; the sender pays essentially nothing to send spam; the cost of filtering it out and otherwise dealing with it is borne by network operators and their customers.

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