Spam, spam, spam, spam

Junk e-mail is now a fact of online life, and forthcoming EU legislation will never stop it.

Junk e-mail is now a fact of online life, and forthcoming EU legislation will never stop it.

I can remember a time when there was no spam - when the idea of online junk mail had not even been conceived. I also recall the exact moment when our fall from e-grace began. It was March 1994, when a rather curious message about something called the Green Card Lottery turned up in some Usenet newsgroups. Naturally, this historic posting, by a couple of US lawyers called Canter and Siegel, has been lovingly preserved for posterity.

What made this message of note was not the content, but the way it had been distributed. Not only had it been posted to inappropriate newsgroups - something of a digital solecism in those days - but the real sin was that it had been posted over and over again.

At the time, most Netizens imagined the firestorm of criticism greeting this move would be enough to deter anyone from following in Canter and Siegel's footsteps. But they were wrong. For a terrible genie had been let out of the bottle: the realisation by those more interested in making money from this new-fangled Internet thing than respecting the subtleties of its culture that here was the ultimate marketing tool.

Just a few seconds' work meant that your sales pitch could be put before literally thousands - maybe millions - of people. How could any marketeer resist such an opportunity?

Most people could, but an increasing number didn't. Which meant that after that black day, more and more irrelevant messages were posted to large numbers of newsgroups. The death, or at least desecration, of Usenet had begun.

Happily e-mail, that inner sanctum of the online persona, seemed safe. After all, there were no central directories to allow the unscrupulous to harvest e-mail addresses, which meant that there was no practical way to build up mass mailing lists.

And then along came the Web, with its millions of home pages - complete with online addresses - and e-commerce, which allowed e-mail details to be collected along with names and addresses. Soon, lists of names were built up; to begin with, a few hundred thousand, then a million or so - for once a name was on one list, it was soon added to all the others. Today, tens of millions are on offer - not least from self-fuelling e-mail spam.

The Canter and Siegel posting forms part of an old, now sadly defunct spam resource, which has some interesting early history of the problem and its name. Also rather out of date, but a classic in its own way, is the Net Abuse FAQ, and there are other sites with more recent information.

Even a year ago, spam was an intrusion, certainly, but little more than a nuisance. However, something has happened since then: like most people who use the Internet on a regular basis, I have noticed the level of spam rise dramatically recently, to the point where 90% of my e-mail is now junk.

This is probably a result of the underlying dynamics of spam: the more it is used, the more people hear about it, and the more they are tempted to use it. I suspect, too, that the economic situation has played its part: when times are hard, people may be increasingly attracted by its low price. Some may even be driven to measures they would otherwise scorn by simple desperation.

Against this background, many will no doubt cheer the European Union directive mandating the use of opt-in e-mail marketing: "Users should give prior permission for receiving unsolicited electronic communications for ** ERROR CREATING HYPERLINK **." This must be implemented by member states before 31 October 2003.

However, anyone who thinks that from that date we shall return to an Edenic state of spamlessness is sadly deluded. Law code banning spam is all very well, but programming code is better.

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