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Opening Pandora's In-Box

In 1978, Gary Thuerk sent the first e-mail ad, to 600 people. Now, spam numbers in the billions a day -- at AOL, 80% of message traffic.

May 11, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

What Samuel Morse was to the telegraph, what Thomas Edison was to the light bulb, Gary Thuerk is to the unsolicited e-mail advertisements popularly reviled as spam.

"I was the pioneer," Thuerk says with quiet pride. "I saw a new way of doing things."

Billions of messages a day touting cheap mortgages, sexual enhancement pills, quasi-fraudulent business opportunities and pornography of a startling rawness are sad proof that he was on to something.

On May 3, 1978, Thuerk sent out the first spam over the network of government and university computers known as the ARPAnet. A marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corp., he wanted to publicize open houses in Los Angeles and San Mateo where the company's latest computers would be unveiled.

Several thousand people were on the ARPAnet then, most of them computer scientists. Thuerk wanted to send all 600 ARPAnet members on the West Coast an e-mail invitation.

That's when he had his illumination. "It's too much work to send everyone an e-mail," he decided. "So we'll send one e-mail to everyone."

A quarter-century later, the ARPAnet has become the Internet, and e-mail in-boxes are being choked by Thuerk's spiritual descendants.

In January, more than half of the e-mail arriving at the world's biggest Internet provider, America Online, was spam. By March it was more than 70%. Now it's well above 80%, or more than 2.5 billion pieces of spam a day. Other e-mail services cite similar statistics. Yahoo says it is handling five times more spam than a year ago.

The companies trap much of this spam in filters before it ever gets to members. But more than enough gets through to annoy, distress and outrage.

Some people are overwhelmed. "I have quit checking my e-mail because of all the spam," Jennifer Rainwaiter told her e-mail company, Aristotle Inc. of Little Rock, Ark. Rainwaiter said that the last time she signed on, she found 247 marketing messages waiting for her.

Aristotle estimates that spam will cost it about 5% of its 26,000 subscribers this year. "They're just flat quitting because they can't take it anymore," said systems administrator Carl Shivers.

Internet providers as small as Aristotle and as big as AOL are groaning under the weight of spam. They're adding new computers to carry the doubled and tripled loads and constantly upgrading and redesigning their filters.

Between the beleaguered public and the swamped Internet companies, a crisis has been declared. Politicians are readying spam bills at the state and national levels. Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo, usually fierce competitors, are banding together to explore remedies. Meanwhile, technologists are exploring structural changes to e-mail that will stop spam without destroying the integrity of the Net.

All of these entities came together at the beginning of this month for a three-day workshop at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. No consensus was reached on anything except the fact that the problem was getting worse minute by minute.

"Finding a solution here is like putting socks on an octopus," FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson said during a break in the proceedings. "There are too many moving parts. But the clear message is that doing nothing is not acceptable. We're approaching a tipping point where consumer confidence is beginning to erode."

Any solution, Thompson and others said, must be not only effective but easy to implement. If the average person confronts too many hurdles, he or she will abandon e-mail and perhaps draw back from the Net itself.

"If we can't solve this problem for Middle America, then the Internet will be a place only for the technologically sophisticated or those most accepting of risk," Thompson warned.

Among the many losers in that scenario would be all those trying so hard to sell things via e-mail, including the marketers who play by the rules and the spammers who obey no laws.

Bill Waggoner says he's in the first category, although he's often accused of being in the second. His company, AAW Marketing in Las Vegas, sends out 16 million pieces of e-mail a day, pushing products from life insurance to vacation packages to a sexual enhancement cream.

Waggoner says he's just a businessman fulfilling a need. "E-mail marketing is what people want," he says. "This is America. Capitalism reigns."


How It Began

Even the guy who invented e-mail is oppressed by spam.

"I get about 20 to 30, probably as many as 50, pieces a day," says Ray Tomlinson, who sent a message from one computer to another in 1971.

That first e-mail was such a low-key moment that Tomlinson remembers neither the exact date nor the content of the message, which he sent to himself. But his invention was soon taken up by the computer scientists who developed the ARPAnet network, started in 1969 by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense.

Tomlinson never anticipated spam. "This was a system for communication among colleagues, and your colleagues weren't about to bother you with stuff like spam," he says.

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