They flow through the Internet like a swelling flood: get-rich-quick schemes, pornography, right-wing militia propaganda. Junk mail has arrived in the digital world. And it has provoked such an outcry from users that everyone from Congress to direct mailers is beginning to address the problem. If something isn't done, users and analysts agree, the online world can expect a deluge of junk e-mail - known as "spam."
"Just think if all the [paper-based] junk mailers could send their mail almost free," says Tim Giebelhaus, a Boston-area Internet user who gets "spammed" three to four times a day. "Think how full your mailbox would be. You'd have to unload it with a dumpster."
The situation is especially sensitive to families, since junk e-mailers have no idea when they send their uncensored ads whether the addressee is an adult or a child.
One of the more blatant unsolicited messages the Monitor has received was for free time on an online porn site from LCGM Inc. This Madison Heights, Mich., based company doesn't spam the Internet directly. That would quickly get it thrown off, according to a spokesperson for its service provider, UUNet. Instead, the company employs more than 400 independent contractors who promote its offerings. "I don't really care how they promote my sites, and I'm not responsible for what they do," says Ziad Gappy, president of LCGM.
The contractor who sent the LCGM spam to the Monitor used an account with Hotmail Corp., one of the largest providers of e-mail accounts in the US. The account was terminated after the spamming began, says Randy Delucchi, Hotmail's customer service director. "We have a zero-tolerance attitude toward spam; one instance and you're out."
These Internet access companies are often the first line of defense against spam. Many will cancel spammers' accounts as soon as they receive complaints. But because spam e-mail often has a forged returned address, only an expert can tell where the mail really came from. Contacting your Internet service provider and sending them a copy of the e-mail is often the best course. Unfortunately, like wandering grifters, the spammers usually move on to other service providers, often taking advantage of their free-trial offers to send out more e-mail.
One reason spamming is so popular is that it is cheap. Spammers can get 3 million addresses on a CD-ROM for $350. Since these addresses are culled from Internet discussion groups and Web site registrations, one way to avoid receiving junk e-mail is to avoid these activities.
Lighthouse Engineering, an Internet service provider in Kissimmee, Fla., is taking a different tack. "We work very hard with customers to wean them off spam," says Scott Piel, president of Lighthouse. He has persuaded some spammers to use more socially acceptable promotions.
Government steps in
While many spammers play cat and mouse with service providers, the federal government is starting to address the problem. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska has sponsored the "Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Choice Act of 1997," which would require all such e-mail to be labeled and force Internet service providers to provide methods for their users to filter out unwanted spam.
In the House, Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey wants to ban spam altogether in much the same way that Congress effectively banned junk faxes in 1991.
But the benefits of such regulation are a matter of debate. Some online legal experts doubt an outright ban would pass muster in the Supreme Court.
"It's half a solution," says Mr. Piel of Lighthouse. "What good are laws that aren't enforceable. You're trusting in the fact that people will label."
Threatened by the new legislation, the spam industry is beginning to police itself. The year-old Internet E-Mail Marketing Council (IEMMC) is trying a technological fix. Members agree to send their e-mail through special filters located on IEMMC's e-mail computers in Stratham, N.H. Anyone who doesn't want to receive spam can register on IEMMC's Web site (www.iemmc.org). Of course, this only works with spammers who agree to abide by IEMMC's code of ethics.
Stephen Faulkner, chairman of IEMMC, asks Internet users to be patient. "Consumers want us to work this all out in 24 hours. It won't happen.
"In the past, the bulk e-mail industry has been under constant financial attack, having to constantly change service providers. Now we have a stable base, we can devote resources to what the industry needs to become more acceptable." Mr. Faulkner also believes that once most spammers send their e-mail through filters like the ones IEMMC offers, the remaining few will be treated as outcasts. "We're establishing rules and regulations, people who ignore them will be pariahs."
* Staff writer Laurent Belsie contributed to this article.