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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Changing the online menu
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
Computer consultant Bill Thompson says it is time we cut spam out of our internet diet

I woke up this morning and, as is my habit, turned on my computer to download my e-mail.

Being quite a sad, net-obsessed geek I tend to read e-mail just before I go to bed, so the stuff I get in the morning is what's come in between 11pm and 6am.

The number of porn sites sending stuff is beginning to worry me greatly

If I'm lucky there's an e-mail from my girlfriend, as she's an early riser too, and there may be something from one of my US-based colleagues.

I also get messages from various mailing lists which, because the subscribers are scattered around the world, come in 24 hours a day.

But the largest part of my overnight mail - some 30 or more messages - comes from people I've never heard of, generally trying to sell me stuff I don't want, invite me to join dubious get-rich-quick schemes, persuade me to visit their pornographic websites or offer me drugs which will improve my sexual potency.

Yes, it's all spam, the junk mail of the internet.

Reading rubbish

Taking its name from a Monty Python comedy sketch, unwanted commercial e-mail has become one of the major problems for today's internet user.

Partly this is because it clogs up mailboxes; partly it is because quite a lot of it is explicitly pornographic and sent out apparently at random, reaching many children; mostly it is just unwelcome and irritating.

Spam is sent out by the million to e-mail addresses on lists assembled by trawling newsgroups, mailing lists and websites.

Some sites use small programs to "steal" the e-mail address of the people who visit them. The lists are cheap to buy and the e-mails are easy to send - there are programs that do it automatically - so the problem is getting worse every day.

The saddest thing about spam is that it must actually work, because otherwise the people behind it would have given up

I used to think that spam was the price we pay for having an open e-mail system, and simply deleted it all every morning, but I am starting to get irritated and annoyed by the sheer volume of messages.

The number of porn sites sending stuff is beginning to worry me greatly. I do not want my children to use e-mail if this is going to continue, but I can't see a way to stop it.

Although most ISPs have terms of service that prohibit mass e-mailing of this sort, the companies that send the worst stuff spend a lot of energy getting round these restrictions.

They make it look as if the e-mail comes from a non-existent e-mail address so that they are hard to trace, and they exploit well-known security holes in internet e-mail systems to get round blocks and filters.

Legal battle

Lots of attempts have been made to control spam - some technical and some legal - but they are simply not working, and the number of spam messages is starting to force some of us to wonder whether internet e-mail can survive in its present form.

While legal controls sound attractive - the European Union's Communications Privacy Directive will, if properly implemented, stop all unwanted commercial e-mail within Europe - they all suffer from one fundamental problem.

E-mail delete box
Put spam here
Most of the spam is not from legitimate companies marketing their products in new markets - it's from con artists, pornographers and low-lifes.

It's easy to tell them apart: about six months ago a company I'd never heard of started sending me their "technology briefing". I hadn't asked for it and wasn't interested in it, so I set up a rule in my e-mail program to spot these messages and move them to my Deleted folder when they arrived.

It works and I haven't seen another message from these people, because they are a legitimate company that uses the same e-mail address each month to send out their marketing.

Their e-mail list is just badly targeted. (And before you ask, I didn't send them a message asking them to remove me as I wasn't sure they were legitimate, and the worst thing you can do with spam is to reply to it, since it shows that your e-mail address is live - the result will be a lot more unwanted e-mail!)

Desperate tale

I can't filter real spam like this. Senders of unpleasant or fraudulent stuff constantly change the "from" address, mess with the mail headers and do other stuff to disguise their identity and confuse the mail system.

Recycling cardboard in the Philippines, AP
Some people do a better job of dealing with junk
People like this won't care what laws they break; they are already breaking the terms of use of their internet connection and the technical rules that govern email traffic.

That leaves technical solutions, but these are hard to design. For one thing, the difference between "spam", "marketing" and "personal correspondence" is rather hard to define clearly.

There are some approaches that seem to be successful.

Brightmail offers a mail gateway for companies that downloads a set of spam definitions, rather like virus definitions, based on its analysis of traffic to its own network - after all, spam is sent to large numbers of people by default.

And the usual family filters will block pornographic spam just as they block access to pornographic websites.

This still leaves the problem that all these messages are being sent, and consuming network resources. Perhaps if we find ways to block them the people sending them will eventually stop, because they will no longer get any responses from the gullible.

For me, the saddest thing about spam is that it must actually work, because otherwise the people behind it would have given up.

Every time I read one of the messages offering me early entry to a pyramid sales scam, or a drug that will let me lose weight instantly, I think of the thousands of people who respond and get ripped off.

As an insight into the level of intelligence or desperation of my fellow net users it is deeply depressing; as an index of the level of corruption and venality on the part of the commercial internet it is a source of despair.

Why did we work so hard to make this beautiful network if this is the best we can do with it?

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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See also:

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