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The Shoebox

Contra the Green Card Lawyers

Martha Siegel and her husband, Laurence Canter, had an immigration-law practice. In April of 1994, they posted several thousand copies of an advertisement for their services to Usenet in the space of a few hours, triggering disk overflows, network downtime, and in some cases system crashes. April 12th, 1994 (a day that will live in infamy) saw the introduction of the term "spam" to Usenet.

The San Franciso Examiner printed in its July 10th, 1994 issue a charmingly self-congratulatory guest editorial written by Siegel on why her destructive and annoying advertising methods were good, true, right, and inevitable. I wondered out loud: "Will I have to submit a counter-article explaining why people who post four thousand identical articles over the space of an hour are assholes?" Writing some sort of response seemed a moral imperative.

However, the Examiner editor never returned my message asking whether she was willing to print a reply in the next "Viewpoint" section. Ah, well. Here it is anyway.

Like most people, you probably get quite a bit of junk mail. And like most people, it probably doesn't bother you too much; you spend a few minutes sorting it, dump what you don't want in the trash, and that's the end of it.

But suppose you started getting junk mail postage due, deliberately mislabeled so you'd be sure to accept it and pay the postage, only to discover that it was an advertisement instead of a letter from a friend or the latest issue of your professional journal. Suppose you went out to your mailbox one day to discover someone had sent you four thousand identical pieces of junk mail. Suppose they were all sent postage-due.

That's more or less what happened to thousands of Usenet sites and millions of readers a couple of month ago, when immigration lawyers Canter & Siegel decided to send four thousand identical copies of their ad for green-card services to over eight thousand different discussion groups. That day, if you were a reader of Usenet, the largest set of electronic forums in the world, you might open up the discussion groups dedicated to woodworking, or Macintosh programming, or support for survivors of sexual abuse, and find ads telling you how Canter & Siegel would, for a mere hundred dollars or so, be willing to type your name on a piece of paper and mail it to the INS Green Card lottery - a procedure which doesn't require a lawyer, and was designed by INS specifically so any ordinary person could do it without paying one.

You move on to another newsgroup - one dedicated to physics research, perhaps, or scuba diving, or (if you live in Bloomington, Indiana) the group where people discuss the best restaurants in your town. Computer privacy, Chinese politics, bicycling, you might check any of the thousands of Usenet discussions. And you find yourself wading through still more Green Card ads.

"Suppose you started getting junk mail postage due. Suppose you went out to your mailbox one day to discover someone had sent you four thousand identical pieces of junk mail. Suppose they were all sent postage-due."

The damage didn't stop at inconvenience to a few million people, either. Systems across the world experienced technical problems as a result of this massive dump of duplicates into the Usenet discussions. The computer that channels Usenet into New Zealand was knocked completely out of commission.

If you read Martha Siegel's Viewpoint article last week, you might be asking, "Why should an advertisement cause all this fuss?" Well, the fuss had little to do with the content of the posts. Usenet is a set of discussion groups, and repetitive, impersonal, blanket ads are no more appropriate or welcome in most of those groups than a megaphone at the dinner table. Nevertheless, Usenet does have several groups devoted entirely to advertising. The network sees commercial activity every day without a whisper of complaint, and has for many years.

This, however, was no ordinary ad. I'll spare you the technical details, but briefly, C & S hired a consultant to write a program that let them post, not a single copy, but thousands. These copies were sent to every Usenet site in the world, including computers in countries whose citizens are not eligible for the Green Card lottery. That means that each computer connected to Usenet - and there are thousands - had to pay the telephone and network connection bills to receive each of those copies and had to find space on their disks to store all of them.

This is the cause of the annoyance at C & S. Not that they posted a (horrors!) commercial message. Not even that the "service" they offered seemed to many observers to be barely on the right side of a scam (both lawyers have been the target of disciplinary investigations and suspension by the Florida state bar for a number of ethical violations). Any message that was posted this many separate times and cost Usenet sites this much time and money would get a similar reaction, whether it was an ad, a political missive, or an announcement of the Second Coming.

So how can a company advertise online without causing technical disasters and infuriating millions of potential customers? Pretty easily, actually. Usenet newsgroups are transmitted over many communication links, including ordinary telephone lines and Internet links. The worldwide Internet carries many kinds of traffic, of which Usenet is only one. Anyone who wants to make information available to all 20 million or so users of the Internet can set up a computer site to hold files, or text information, or even pictures and animated clips. Interested net users enter a simple command to visit these sites. The site's administration bears the minimal cost of making the information available, instead of multiplying that cost by the thousands of computers on the network and passing the total cost to everyone else. Annoyance and technical damage are avoided, and no one objects in the slightest. Canter and Siegel could have used such methods. Presumably they had their own reasons for choosing instead to cause computer disruption on a worldwide scale.

Plenty of legitimate businesses use the Internet responsibly to advertise, to disseminate information about their products, and to gain new customers for their products and services. And they do it without interfering with ongoing discussions or causing technical problems for other computers on the network. Such businesses, and their advertisements, are welcome on the Internet. Vandals, however, are not. And neither are the kind of people who send out junk mail postage-due, and then boast about their innovative, low-cost advertising techniques.

A few links of interest:
Jeanne A. E. DeVoto
Copyright © 1994 Jeanne A. E. DeVoto