Skip to comments.Is the net about to choke to death?
Posted on 05/03/2003 4:19:10 PM PDT by MadIvan
The uninvited guest on the web is taking over. If we want to continue e-mailing and surfing, spam must be stopped, says Martin Wroe
Sometime in the next six weeks the internet will pass a milestone. In about the middle of July the number of e-mails we dont want to receive will overtake the number we do. Yes, spam is on course to conquer the web. For Adrian Pearson, an independent film producer based in London, the milestone is already past. Each day he gets more offers of cheap loans, miracle diets and penile enhancement than work-related messages. It takes up an inordinate amount of time just clearing them out, he laments. Sometimes I wonder if I could do without e-mail. But these days it would be like doing without the phone; not possible.
Because of the adult nature of much spam, he thinks twice about his two young children using the family computer. Some of the material is sickening. I want to call the police to tell them my home is being violated, but what can I do? What can anyone do? Research from the anti-spam specialist Brightmail last week found that pornographic spam alone has risen by 400% in the past year. As our inboxes darken with unsolicited mail, some experts believe the sheer volume of spam could bring the net to a halt.
Office workers waste hours deleting messages while businesses hire experts to fumigate polluted networks. The cost to the global economy is estimated at $9 billion (about £5.5 billion) a year.
And unwanted e-mail turns people off the virtual life. When my 10-year-old daughter opened a Hotmail account last week, she wrote to a friend in New Zealand. Next day came the reply along with five other e-mails offering assorted anatomical enhancements.
Spam is rapidly undermining confidence in the internet, explains John Carr of the Childrens Charities Coalition for Internet Safety. It confirms peoples view that the net is all a bit seedy.
Last week three big internet service providers (ISPs) America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo agreed to fight this virtual epidemic. At the same time, Virginia, home to some of the worlds biggest internet companies, introduced legislation that could put spammers in jail for five years.
But while the ISPs have started to fight back, professional spammers are notoriously hard to track down. Some believe that the billions of spam e-mails emanate from just 150 shadowy companies, programming computers to randomly generate names and fire off mail by the million, 24 hours a day.
According to Derek Wyatt, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party internet group, the UK is only now waking up to the threat. Wyatt claims it was only after he forwarded pornographic mail received at his Commons e-mail account to the Speaker that officials took notice. They introduced a filtering system, but that is now failing.
Spammers are getting more and more sophisticated, he says. The subject lines no longer include words like sex. Instead they tell you to have a nice day but the content turns out to be porn.
Later this month, Wyatts group hosts the first UK spam summit, which will be addressed by Stephen Timms, the minister for e-commerce, and in the next few days Home Office advice on unsolicited commercial e-mail will be published.
The net, says Wyatt, is in its spotty, adolescent phase and needs to grow up in particular it needs a global governing body to monitor and legislate for acceptable online practice. An internet charter could threaten ISPs with fines or licence withdrawal if their customers suffer spam abuse. If they see regulation coming, the ISPs will throw some of their money at it and fix the problem.
The ISPs claim it is unfair to blame the virtual postman. But if the real postman delivered 30 adult magazines and 17 diet-while-you-sleep offers along with the gas bill nobody would let the Post Office get away with telling customers to get a more intelligent letter box.
At present, however, protection from spam is largely down to the humble computer user. Our irritation at this desktop interference is matched only by our confusion at how these dubious people get hold of our e-mail addresses. In fact, very often it is our fault.
An experiment at the American Centre for Democracy and Technology last year found that e-mail addresses posted on websites attracted the most spam. Six decoy e-mail addresses attracted 8,500 spam messages in six months, whereas e-mail addresses not made public attracted very few.
Spammers use harvesting software to record addresses placed on websites, in chat rooms for example, and then start mailing them and selling them on to others.
One simple way around this, when posting your address on a website, is to replace the characters in your e-mail address with deceptive equivalents sheila at britain dot com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org. Or set up another e-mail address for public posting only.
The simplest advice of all is to never reply to the offer to be unsubscribed from an unsolicited e-mail. A reply tells the spammer your e-mail address is live and ideal to spam again.
The Sunday Times Doors section recently started a campaign against spam, encouraging MPs, government, software makers and ISPs to work together to improve anti-spam software and prosecute those responsible. It also called for an independent watchdog.
From October, Britain is set to comply with a European Union directive to make unsolicited e-mail illegal across member states. But most spam originates outside Europe and its pedlars will not be trembling at the thought of new laws.
The spammers are always going to be more net savvy than most of us and in the end, says John Carr, it will not be legislation or education that defeats them.
The solution will have to be a technological one, and that means the ISPs are going to have to invest. If they dont, they will pay a hefty price because people will just turn away altogether.
I've heard this line before, linked to how difficult these people are to trace, and I've never quite understood it. Some one has to hire these companies to fire off the spam in the first place. Even if, somehow, only those who want to issue spam can find these people, we know who is hiring them, because they have their identity on the spam mails. Can't we get the contact information from those companies?
I just don't see why finding these spammers should be so difficult, I suppose.
Whiner. I can get rid of 20 spam emails in 30 seconds. Its very easy to tell by the subject and author.
The basic idea is, a dime wouldn't stop your friends and family from sending you e-mail. But it would stop Mister Penile Enlargement from sending out ten million e-mails when he expects to get back only ten replies. That works when the e-mails are free, but when they cost $1 million and he only stands to make $100, he'll think again about darkening your virtual doorstep.
Cool. Post your e-mail address here and you will get a chance to go for a personal best.