Where sending junk mail by post costs at least 50p per letter, including postage and printing, Internet advertisers can send a million e-mails for a few hundred pounds in connection costs.
The Internet community has traditionally fought junk e-mail or "spamming" (from the famous Monty Python sketch "spam, spam, spam and spam") by "flaming" the sender - inundating them with hateful e-mails. When the lawyers Cantor and Siegal famously blanketed Usenet newsgroups in 1994 with ads for helping people obtain US citizenship, the huge number of "flames" protesting against this caused their Internet Service Provider (ISP) to close the account. But this kind of response is less effective against today's sophisticated spammers who often leave false trails.
The most prominent bulk e-mailer is Cyber Promotions. It has 5,000-plus clients and sends out up to three million e-mails a day. When America Online blocked it from sending e-mail to its subscribers, Cyber Promotions sued. AOL eventually won on appeal and now blocks any domain that gets more than 50 complaints, "although some domains change their addresses," says Jonathan Bulkeley, AOL UK's managing director.
The Independent tried to contact Sanford Wallace, Cyber Promotions' president, but e-mails to him went unanswered or proved undeliverable to the many addresses the company gives on its spams. A posting he sent to a newsgroup, however, gives his reason for targeting the big online services: "The only market that accepts UCE [unsolicited commercial e-mail] as a whole are newbies [new Net users] who do not share the same viewpoints of the traditional netizen's netiquette. That's why we are fighting so hard for the right to send to AOL members."
Among the domains AOL banned were netfree.com, which sells the Floodgate bulk e-mailing software, honeys.com, which offered a live video feed of Las Vegas strippers, and three of the domains Cyber Promotions uses: cyberpromo.com, answerme.com and servint.com. Some of the ISPs involved protested that they were being unfairly hurt for providing their customers with a service, just as AOL does. Indeed, AOL addresses are the source of many of the 50 or so junk e-mails I receive each month on one of my CompuServe accounts (the other is largely unaffected and I've only received one junk e-mail on my AOL account).
AOL says it shuts down any account against which there are a lot of complaints, or which invalidates its terms of service, including those that send offensive e-mails. But as the largest online service it protests that it is difficult for it to stop people sending junk e-mail from its addresses.
Mr Bulkeley says he gets about 10 junk e-mails a day and hates it, but believes "the power of the medium is also the downfall of the medium. It allows people to communicate openly and freely. That's wonderful, except when it's inappropriate, but that's where [AOL's new] mail controls come in." These controls now allow members to opt out of receiving mail from any domains, or even only to accept mail from certain addresses.
David Furness, sales and marketing director for Netcom, the world's largest ISP, says he believes similar mail controls will be built into Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4 and, possibly, Netscape Navigator 4. And if they aren't, Netcom is looking at adding them itself. However, he doesn't feel the UK is being hit by the "kind of blanket e-mail we see in the US". But he points out that anyone can send a global e-mail to all addresses at almost any domain name using a "wildcard" facility, which can post to every possible combination of letters or numbers.
Netcom doesn't sell its subscriber lists and Mr Furness believes the Data Protection Act would prevent it from doing so in the UK, unless it gave users the ability to opt out. However, that has to be tested in court as the Act doesn't specifically mention e-mail.
CompuServe's Matthew Greenslade also says it hasn't had many complaints about spamming. If someone complains (to firstname.lastname@example.org), he says, "we have got a number of things we can do", but he won't say what for fear that the spammers might find a way around them.
He denies CompuServe sells its e-mail addresses, but the only junk e- mail to reach both of my CompuServe accounts was from Tesco, promoting a home-shopping trial. It had got the addresses from CompuServe and even knew where I was living. One other spam did arrive from a UK address (UK Online), but digging deeper revealed it originated at email@example.com - a Cyber Promotions address.
There is considerable divergence on the Net itself about spamming. Those who have been online longest generally hate it. But most put up with it. In one recent newsgroup thread, Bob Schmidt of Provider Marketing Group in Florida wrote: "If Internet users hate unsolicited e-mail on principal to the degree that they do not buy in sufficient numbers to make the mailing a failure, then mailers will not continue to mail." Therefore, junk e- mail should fade away. If, however, enough recipients follow the example of other direct-marketing efforts, the mailings will be a success, no matter how adamant the anti-spammers are.
James McMullen, an Internet consultant, thinks that however much we might dislike spamming, it will grow, especially once firms can get their hands on classified lists of e-mail users so that they can define their target market properly (which might at least diminish the tide of American junk e-mail that washes up on British computers).
"When those list companies do get enough data to entice the big marketers, you'll be hit with a tidal wave of direct e-mail, no matter how many nasty reply messages they get," he says n
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