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Usenet has to figure out how to deal with spam (April 1994)

An early form of borderline deceptive commercial content inundating Usenet newsgroups causes an uproar among users.

Summary: In the early 1990s, facing increased pressure from the commercial sector who sensed there might be some value in the nascent “Internet,” the National Science Foundation began easing informal restrictions on commercial activity over the Internet. This gave rise to the earliest internet companies -- but also to spam. Before the World Wide Web had really taken off, the place where a great deal of internet communication took place was Usenet, created in 1980, which was what one might think of as a proto-Reddit, with a variety of “newsgroups” dedicated to different subjects that users could post to.

 Screenshot from Cloudmark’s history of spam page.

Usenet was a decentralized service based on the Network News Transfer Protocol. Users needed a Usenet reader, from which they would connect to any number of Usenet servers and pull down the latest content in the newsgroups they followed. In early 1994, a husband and wife lawyer team, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, decided that they would advertise their legal services regarding immigration to the US (specifically help with the infamous “Green Card Lottery” to get a green card to the US) on Usenet.

They hired a programmer to write a perl script that posted their advertisement on 5,500 separate news groups. While cross-posting was possible (a single post designated for multiple newsgroups), this particular message was posted individually to each newsgroup, which made it even more annoying for users -- since most Usenet reader applications would have recognized the same message as “read” in different newsgroups if it had merely been cross-posted. Posting it this way guaranteed that many people saw the message over and over and over again.

It is generally considered one of the earliest examples of commercial “spam” on the internet -- and certainly the most “successful” at the time. It also angered a ton of people. According to Time Magazine, Canter and Siegel faced immediate backlash:

In the eyes of many Internet regulars, it was a provocation so bald-faced and deliberate that it could not be ignored. And all over the world, Internet users responded spontaneously by answering the Spammers with angry electronic- mail messages called "flames." Within minutes, the flames -- filled with unprintable epithets -- began pouring into Canter and Siegel's Internet mailbox, first by the dozen, then by the hundreds, then by the thousands. A user in Australia sent in 1,000 phony requests for information every day. A 16-year-old threatened to visit the couple's "crappy law firm" and "burn it to the ground." The volume of traffic grew so heavy that the computer delivering the E-mail crashed repeatedly under the load. After three days, Internet Direct of Phoenix, the company that provided the lawyers with access to the Net, pulled the plug on their account.

It wasn’t just Usenet users. Immigration lawyers were also upset in part because Canter and Siegel were asking for money to do what most people could easily do for free:

Unfortunately, it also provided an opportunity for charlatans to charge exorbitant fees to file lottery entries for hopeful immigrants.

In truth, all it took to enter the drawing was a postcard with your name and address mailed to the designated location.

Canter and Siegel, a husband-and-wife law firm, decided to join the lottery frenzy by pitching their own overpriced services to immigrant communities.

The two were unrepentant, later claiming they made over $100,000 from the advertisement. They quickly set up a new company called “Cybersell” to do this for others -- and signed a contract to write a book for HarperCollins originally called "How To Make A Fortune On The Information Superhighway."

Decisions to be made by Usenet server providers:

  • Would they need to start being more aggressive in monitoring and moderating their newsgroups?
  • Would it even be possible to prevent spam?
  • Should they even carry news groups that allowed for open contributions?

Decisions to be made by ISPs:

  • Should they allow Canter and Siegel to use their internet access to spam newsgroups?
  • How should they handle the backlash from users angry about the spam campaigns?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • What is the boundary between allowed commercial speech or advertising and spam? How do you distinguish it?
  • Is it possible to have distributed systems (as opposed to centralized ones) that don’t end up filled with spam?
  • What are the legal implications of spam

Resolution: Canter and Siegel remained a scourge on the internet for some time. Various service providers were quick to kick them off as soon as it was discovered that they were using them. Indeed, many seemed willing to talk publicly about their decisions, such as Netcom, which shut down their account soon after the original spam happened and after Canter and Siegel had announced plans to continue spamming:

NETCOM On-Line Communications has taken the step of

cancelling the service of Laurence Canter of Canter and

Siegel, the lawyer commonly referred to as the "Green

Card Lawyer". Mr. Canter had been a customer of NETCOM

in the past. He had been cautioned for what we consider

abuse of NETCOM's system resources and his systematic and

willful actions that do not comply with the codes of

behavior of USENET.

Mr. Canter has been widely quoted in the print and

on-line media about his intention to continue his

practice of advertising the services of his law firm

using USENET newsgroups. He has also widely posted his

intention to sell his services to advertise for others

using the newsgroups. We do not choose to be the

provider that will carry his messages.

That link also has notices from other service providers, such as Pipeline and Performance

Systems, saying they were removing internet access.

Others focused on trying to help Usenet server operators get rid of the spam. Programmer Arnt Gulbrandsen quickly put together a tool to help fight this kind of spam by “cancelling” the messages when spotted. This actually helped establish the early norm that it was okay to block and remove spam.

As for Canter and Siegel, they divorced a couple years later, though both kept promoting themselves as internet marketing experts. Canter was disbarred in Tennessee for his internet advertising practices, though he had already moved on from practicing law. Cybersell, the company they had setup to do internet advertising, was apparently dissolved in 1998.

Written by The Copia Institute, August 2020

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