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The Nation

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

Just as people learned not to publish their phone numbers for fear of telemarketers, they're realizing they will be spammed if they post their e-mail addresses on Internet discussion groups and bulletin boards.

The FTC recently established that spammers' ability to harvest e-mail addresses on the Web were even more effective than realized. In one experiment, a newly created AOL account was used to post a message in a religious chat room. Twenty-one minutes later, the address received its first spam -- a graphic advertisement for a porn site.

In another test, an e-mail address was never posted anywhere, but hidden on the agency's home page. In seven months, the address received 5,150 spam messages.

The obvious moral: To avoid spam, keep your address as private as possible. The result is that an open system, where just about anyone in the world connected to a computer could communicate with anyone else, is becoming much more guarded.

"The walls have been raised," said Daryl Pitts, a Santa Monica video game developer who uses a new e-mail address every time he subscribes to something on the Web. Once the spam starts coming in, he shuts the address off. He's done it dozens of times in the last year.

The downside is it's much harder for people to reach him.

"People can't just walk into my life like in the good old days," Pitts said. "I have to invite them in. Our easygoing utopia, where there were no borders and no police, is gone."


What Is Being Done

In 1998, California took an early lead in anti-spam legislation. One law required all unsolicited messages to be identified by an "ADV" in the subject line; another said Internet providers could ban spam from their networks.

Hopes were high. "These bills will protect Californians from the spam that clogs the arteries of the information superhighway," said Pete Wilson, who was then governor. "This is excellent," said spam fighter Paul Vixie.

If any spammer changed his ways as a result of the laws, there's no evidence of it. You could live in California a long time and never see a message with an "ADV."

"Some spammers don't realize what they're doing is illegal," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Ian Sweedler. "Some don't want to accept it's illegal. And an awful lot believe they're not going to get caught or prosecuted."

More than half the states have their own spam laws. The most recent and the toughest measure was enacted by Virginia, which two weeks ago said that it would seize spammers' ill-gotten assets and impose prison terms of up to five years.

But only three states -- California, New York and Washington -- have filed lawsuits. Spam may be affecting many, but it touches few deeply. It's not the highest-priority crime out there, especially in a time of budgetary distress.

"I don't think any of the state laws have had significant effect," said David Sorkin, an associate professor of law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. A national law, which seems likely this year, might help a little more, he said.

More state laws are nevertheless likely. State Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) has introduced a bill to make it illegal to send unsolicited mail either from California or to a California e-mail address. Recipients of spam could sue for $500 per e-mail.


Pandora's In-Box

For all those plagued by spam, it might be comforting to think that the guy who started it has apologized, or maybe just that he feels guilty. Pandora unleashed a world of trouble, but at least she said she was sorry.

Not Gary Thuerk. Digital Equipment was bought by Compaq, which was in turn bought by Hewlett-Packard. He still works there. His office mates have all sorts of nicknames for him -- the Spam Man, Father of Spam. They joke that he should enter the witness protection program. They joke that he has given jobs to hundreds or thousands of people.

"It's a very lighthearted thing," Thuerk says in his amiable way. "We're having a lot of fun with it." He has some Spam recipes tacked up to his wall, a can of the stuff on the desk.

Thuerk doesn't cruise the Net. He doesn't buy online. He doesn't visit chat rooms. He's not worried about long-lost friends not being able to find his e-mail address.

He doesn't, in other words, use the Net the way millions of others do. As a result, his in-box remains pure. "I don't get much spam," Thuerk says. "Maybe one or two a day. It's not a big nuisance."


Closing the in-box

Some unsolicited and unwanted commercial e-mail is probably unavoidable, but it's possible to keep volume at a manageable level. Among the recommendations by the Federal Trade Commission, consumer groups and Internet service providers:

* Limit your primary e-mail address to friends and family. Use a second address when visiting chat rooms or message groups. This address will unavoidably collect a lot of spam. When it becomes too much, dispose of the address and start again.

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