Those Bulk Email Blues
by Geoff Duncan
Reprinted with permission from TidBITS,
which is not affiliated with IMC
If you've been on the Internet for any length of time, the odds
are excellent that you've received unsolicited email announcements
and advertisements. These messages vary widely: one day you might
receive information about a get-rich-quick scheme, the next an ad
for an Internet service provider. Some messages are controversial
and pernicious, including political harangues and hate-filled
diatribes. Others are just odd, such as an ad for hand-knitted
kitty-boots, or (I'm not making this up!) an announcement that
extraterrestrials from Saturn want to set up a bottle-cap
recycling program in New Jersey.
Although the problem isn't new, the recent growth of the Internet
has been accompanied by an explosive expansion in "bulk email" or
"spam," and followed in recent months by an angry backlash. An
entire industry is springing up around bulk email, and now the
issues are headed for the courts. Although this article can't
discuss every aspect of bulk emailing, it does provide some
background, and explains how to respond reasonably to junk email.
Since I'm personally inundated and annoyed by bulk
email, I cannot claim to represent the viewpoints of those who
send it. However, in discussing the topic with several people who
condone bulk mailings, some rationales surprised me.
For the most part, bulk emailers believe they are providing a
service by distributing information, thereby helping their
recipients make informed decisions. In the United States, they
believe their activities constitute free speech. Internationally,
bulk email seems to be viewed as free enterprise that could only
be curtailed by international trade agreements - agreements which,
if they existed, would be nearly impossible to enforce. Further,
in the U.S., bulk emailers feel the Internet is a public resource
(since it was created in part with taxpayer monies), and that an
email address is a matter of public record, like a street address.
Many bulk emailers argue their activities should be encouraged
since they're an "improved" form of postal advertisements: they
can be better targeted, take less time to deal with (mail messages
can be deleted in a few seconds, and no physical object needs to
be transported), and have less environmental impact, since no
paper and little fuel is used to deliver them.
Almost universally, bulk emailers believe their activities are
justified. Further, some are selective with their mailings,
sending only 50 or 100 highly targeted messages. Some also work
hard to prune their mailing lists of addresses or whole domains
that object to their mailings.
Of course, many are much less conscientious, holding contempt for
those who take issue with their activities, or arguing (often
effusively) that objecting to bulk email is nothing more than
economic, technological, and cultural elitism. There are also a
few bulk emailers who are new to the Internet and seem to have no
idea their actions might be problematic.
A few bulk emailers also make an interesting point: users who most
strenuously object to bulk email tend to have been on the Internet
for a few years, whereas new Internet users seem to have far fewer
objections to bulk email. And here's another surprise: unless a
recipient actively objects to receiving a message, even the most
conscientious of bulk emailers usually interpret that message as a
success. They choose to believe that while the recipient may not
have been interested in the material in that particular message,
that recipient did not object to receiving it, and is thus a
reasonable target for future mailings.
The arguments against bulk email are numerous and
well-known; I'll only summarize a few here. First, unlike postal
mail, most Internet users pay to receive email at a flat rate,
timed, or per-byte basis, so in many cases unwanted email is
literally paid for by the recipient. Further, since the cost of
bulk email is considerably lower than the cost of sending
advertisements via postal mail, bulk email can be more easily
abused and arrive in considerably higher volumes. Bulk email is
also far more likely than postal advertisements to be
inappropriate or personally offensive, not to mention in violation
of state or local legislation. An argument can even be made that
repeated targeting by bulk emailers constitutes harassment.
The most common objection to bulk email, however, is the
annoyance. Most Internet users consider bulk email to be
irritating and one of the Internet's largest drawbacks. They may
feel that unsolicited mailings violate their privacy or interfere
with their effective use of the Internet.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario is a bulk mailing gone bad. It's
possible for a poorly-conducted bulk mailing to deliver thousands
of copies of a message to a single account. Another troubling case
is a mailing (or the backlash from a mailing) which overwhelms an
Internet site or forces it to go offline. Events like these are
widely considered to be attacks on individuals or entire sites,
and usually provoke hostile and resource-consuming responses,
potentially impacting untold thousands of Internet users.
The Spam Industry
During the last two years, businesses and
software products built around the bulk emailing concept have
sprung into existence. Beginning with commercial endeavors by
expert spammers who would sell themselves as hired guns to spread
a message as widely as possible, the bulk email arena has lately
been dominated by programmers and entrepreneurs looking to make a
quick buck. Some write programs that collect email addresses or
that can perform bulk mailings to thousands of people in a few
hours. Others collect and sell mailing lists, and still others
offer complete bulk mailing services, setting up Internet sites as
bulk email clearinghouses. Many of these endeavors are visible and
public, and at least one is being taken to court.
Bulk emailers get your address using a number of methods:
Collectively, these processes produce thousands of mailing lists,
many of which overlap significantly. Removing your address from
one doesn't remove it from the others, and your address can easily
be re-added. Some bulk emailers do handle list removals
responsibly; however, overwhelmingly, these lists merely grow.
- Usenet trawling: Many bulk emailers use programs that scan all
available Usenet newsgroups for email addresses, compile
comprehensive lists, then remove duplicates. This is also used to
create targeted mailing lists; for instance, a bulk emailer may
assume that anyone posting in the comp.* hierarchy must be
interested in computers. Similarly, geographically-specific lists
can be created from Usenet groups related to cities or regions.
Though scanning Usenet is an arduous task, any respectable
computer can pull out thousands of addresses an hour. Ironically,
services like AltaVista and Deja News make this process even
easier for bulk emailers.
- Provider-trawling: Although this tactic is most often applied to
online services like CompuServe or America Online, bulk emailers
use programs to scan member directories and discussion forums to
generate lists of users of online services. Bulk emailers wanting
to generate a list of users at large Internet providers (like
Netcom or EarthLink) may sign on using a trial account, then use
directory listings or programs like Finger to generate lists of
- Mailing list trawling: Bulk emailers also scan large and popular
mailing lists for email addresses. This tactic works best on large
lists where lots of email addresses appear in the text of
What Can I Do?
Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way
eliminate bulk email. As the problem gets worse, you can expect
services to appear offering spam-free email accounts, and email
filtering software will become increasingly sophisticated. In the
meantime, the most effective way to stop bulk email is to make
your objections known:
In the event you receive bulk email from an Internet domain
specifically set up to send bulk email, these tactics are likely
to fail. If you're familiar with utilities like Whois and
Traceroute, you might be able to identify that site's upstream
providers and complain to them, but that's too detailed to discuss
- Reply to the sender of the email, saying that you do not wish to
receive such mailings, and that you object to such activities. If
the message offers a way to remove yourself from a list, use it.
Many addresses that bulk email appears to be sent from are forged,
so be aware these messages may bounce.
- Examine the headers of the message to determine the site where
the message originated. (This information is usually in the
bottommost "Received:" header line.) Although this information can
be forged, it's usually more useful than the names of intervening
sites. Write a mail message to the username "abuse" or
"postmaster" at that site, with a brief, polite note, the full
headers of the message you received, and the message itself. Try
to leave the subject line intact. This is the text I use to reply
to junk email:
"I received the following unsolicited bulk email ("spam"), which
apparently originated from your site. Please take appropriate
action to ensure this doesn't happen again."
Although you may not receive a response to these messages,
Internet providers usually a warn a bulk emailer that the activity
should stop. If the mailings continue, the provider will usually
terminate the account.
- Some Internet providers and online services have local email
addresses or newsgroups where you can report bulk email messages.
With enough information, the provider can then handle the matter
for you. Check your provider's or online service's help system or
customer service information.
The Future of Bulk Email
The current inability to stop bulk
emailers has led to calls for regulation, perhaps by modifying
existing laws applying to the postal service or fax machines.
Although the issues are very complex, here in the United States,
communications law experts I spoke with generally agreed existing
legislation would adapt poorly to email, particularly in the case
of laws designed to prevent junk faxes. Of course, legislation
passed here would be difficult to enforce within the country and
wouldn't apply elsewhere.
The first court cases regarding bulk email are getting underway
now and will be watched closely by the online community. No matter
what the outcome of these cases, the success of bulk emailers is
likely to spawn services geared to eliminating bulk email.
Already, there's talk of building live, authenticated filters into
email clients - every time you checked your mail, your mail
program would check for a new set of anti-spam filters set up by
your provider or perhaps by a subscription-based service anywhere
on the Internet. With a small editorial staff and decent
connectivity, providing frequently updated bulk email filters
isn't a technological challenge.
In the meantime, if you're one of the few who likes bulk email...
I know where you can get some great hand-knitted booties for your