By T.R. REID and BRIT HUME
The other day we received the world's worst Spam.
While staying in a hotel on a business trip, we logged on to the Internet to make a quick check of incoming e-mails. Amid the usual collection of urgent, not-so-urgent, and totally useless messages there were a few that would qualify as "Spam." This is the standard term for junk e-mails that is, messages you don't want from people you don't know, generally trying to sell you something.
Because it is so cheap and easy to send an e-mail message, some vendors and advertisers have developed the unpleasant practice of sending out the same message to thousands of people. For the vendors, this is quite similar to sending out traditional junk mail; they know most people will throw the thing away without even opening the envelope, but they hope to make two or three sales out of every hundred pieces.
A lot of computer users are outraged about Spam, but the practice has never bothered us much. You can usually figure out pretty quickly that a particular message is unwanted. So you click the "Delete" box on your e-mail program and dispatch the thing to cyber-oblivion. Takes a few seconds. No big deal.
But that outrageous Spam that came the other day was different.
The message was a press release from a software company called AccountMate. We knew it was trouble even before we opened it, because it took more than 20 minutes to download and we couldn't receive any other e-mails until this one was finished.
In addition to the time it takes just to receive one of these huge e-mails, it can be costly. If your Internet connection charges for time connected, you're paying extra for a message you didn't want in the first place. It's as if your letter carrier showed up with a piece of junk mail and demanded that you pay the postage due.
When we opened the message, we realized why it took so long. Somebody at AccountMate had put his entire mailing list more than 4,000 names and addresses! on the "To" line of the e-mail. That meant every recipient of this e-mail had to receive and then scroll through page after page of addresses before getting to the actual message. Then the company attached a separate Microsoft Word document that was 700,000 bytes long. And we had to pay for the time to receive all this junk!
What went wrong here? We'll give AccountMate the benefit of the doubt and assume the company didn't mean to tie up the e-mail lines. Most likely, the company just made some basic errors of "Netiquette" in sending this message.
For one thing, AccountMate should have listed all those 4,000 addressees in the "cc:" box of its e-mail program, not in the "To:" box. Further, a sender of e-mail shouldn't attach a 700-kilobyte file without asking permission from the recipient. AccountMate should have sent out a one-paragraph summary and then offered readers the opportunity to receive this large file separately if they wanted.
Of course, not every offensive Spam is the result of innocent mistakes. There are a lot of companies probably run by the same infuriating people who send out home loan and credit card applications via snailmail that deliberately Spam us every day. To avoid angry replies, or business boycotts, many of these companies use a bogus name and address when sending out their junk.
As long as this amounts to a short message or two now and then, the best anti-Spam strategy is probably to do what we do: watch where each new message comes from, and delete the ones that look to be junk mail.
If you are buried in Spam, however, countermeasures are available. There are several software programs around many are free, and others cost about $30 that strive to turn away Spam messages before you get them. A program called "SpamEater Pro" is typical; it maintains a list of e-mail addresses known to be used by Spammers, and automatically culls any message coming from those addresses.
Naturally, a few members of Congress have also jumped into the fray, proposing bills that they claim would stop Spam. Most of the sponsors, incidentally, are Republicans, the people who talk about reducing governmental regulation except when it comes to the Internet, which they want to regulate like crazy.
We are extremely wary of this approach. Anti-Spam legislation is really just a Trojan Horse to give government more power over the Net. It can't work, because technology always moves faster than congressional attempts to control it. And while Congress perhaps hasn't noticed, the Internet is a global phenomenon; if you outlaw Spamming operations in New York, they'll just move to New Zealand or Nova Scotia and do the same old thing.
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com and Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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