I have been entwined in a passionate affair with the online world ever since my first encounter with the Prestel service for computers called Micronet back in the early 80s. So what could possibly have happened to turn this relationship sour? Could it be due to that bloke who pulled the wrong plug at Telehouse a while back, causing domestic Internet traffic to travel via the US and other convoluted routes for a day or two?
Could it be the slightly more recent Internet disaster when the main InterNic name server managed to distribute a corrupted address database to the online world, effectively closing down the Net for the best part of a day? But what's got my gander is a lot more serious because it's effecting all of us, every day, and it's getting worse. It has invaded my mailbox and has put paid to any chance of useful Usenet discussions, if ever there was such a thing in the first place. But worst of all it has started to become ingrained in the very culture of the Internet, to the point where newbies accept it as a way of online life, and dumb corporate marketing departments hail it as the new messiah.
What I'm talking about is spam. Spam is everywhere. Jump into any Usenet newsgroup and you'll find invitations to talk to "my friend Cathy" who is feeling lonely and can only be contacted on a premium rate number in the Bahamas. You'll be offered the chance to make money fast by any number of multilevel marketing scams and you'll discover that the Net really is a hotbed of pornography. And this scenario holds true not just in the odder "alt" groups, but in mainstream computer science support areas too.
The spam culture has set in, and now that it has taken hold I fear it will be almost impossible to destroy. The only answer lies in moderated newsgroups, but who really wants that? After all, the whole point of Usenet is that the discussions are free, open and uncensored.
The junk mail problem is even worse than Usenet. For some of us it has got to the point where without establishing complex filtering rules in Eudora Pro, or using a dedicated junk mail handling utility like Spam Hater, we could not be productive any more.
I rely on email for my business to survive, and if just one potential contract is lost because I've not noticed it drowning in a sea of virtual processed meat, then I've got every right to be mad as hell about it. And I am. More so because the people who are propagating this stuff insist it's a marketing medium that really works. Hogwash. If it really works then how come I get mail that explains I've been chosen to receive the message because I have shown an interest in dog grooming or mountain climbing or any of a thousand other things I have no interest in?
If it really works then why is it when I hit reply to tell the originator of the message not that I'd like to order his booklet 101 Ways to Make Money Out of Toothpaste, but rather to get stuffed, that I can almost guarantee the message will bounce? What's the point of advertising a product or service if the return address is fake?
Spam does not work - FACT. At least snail-based junk mail has some vaguely rational basis by which we are targeted. In the online world it seems a posting in Usenet is enough. The only people for whom spam works are those who are selling it, people like Cyberpromo - the scourge of decent Netizens everywhere.
But maybe, at long last, those decent Netizens can look forward to some well-earned payback. The company that manufacturers Spam in the real world, and yes I do mean the stuff in a can that is the best argument for becoming a vegetarian I can think of, are taking legal action against Cyberpromo for their use of the registered trademark of "spam". And ISPs are starting to sit up and take note, not to mention action, as well.
A growing number are blocking mail from servers known to distribute nothing but spam, with Cyberpromo at the top of the list. Even online giants like AOL are realising that we don't want this stuff and have recently changed their minds about selling their membership list details to a junk mail company for $50 million. To their credit, they also run a preferred mail option which allows users to choose not to receive spam.
Perhaps then, the end of the Net isn't nigh after all. Perhaps common sense will save the day. But then, what with push technology and the active desktop becoming a reality, perhaps we haven't seen the worst of it yet.
Davey Winder ([email protected]) is the BT Technology Journalist of the Year.
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