Lecture 2: Netiquette

This week, we turn our attention to netiquette. I haven't prepared a lecture on this topic in general. Instead, please read The Core Rules of Netiquette, and peruse the rest of Netiquette, by Virginia Shea. Next, we will concentrate on two specific areas of netiquette, spam and chain letters.

Profligate cross-posting leads to an avalanche of protests. Spam began on April 12, 1994. Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, two Phoenix lawyers posted a message to almost all Internet newsgroups. They were offering their services to help U.S. immigrants apply for the "green-card lottery" set up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the INS). For $95/person and $145/couple, they would help foreign nationals fill out applications for the lottery. Actually, anybody could enter it for the cost of a 29¢ stamp. They posted their message to all newsgroups except those not accessible from the United States, and test newsgroups with no actual readers, in an action that is known as "spamming."

In response, Canter and Siegel were deluged with complaints. They received more than 30,000 e-mail messages. Some programmers prepared e-mail "bombs" to knock out the computer that provided their Internet service. Their fax machine spewed forth hundreds of pages of paper, mostly blank. A robot called them 40 times a night, filling their voicemail system with electronic garbage. Their home address was listed in a post advocated arson. Other posts threatened to post their credit report and credit-card numbers, or suggested how to make their life miserable, like forging messages in their name advocating the assassination of President Clinton.

Obviously, there were ethical problems on both sides. Jürgen Botz, a computer consultant, was quoted as saying, "I do not condone these things. But disproportionate response or not, they knowingly incited the wrath of the Net community by flagrantly abusing a communal resource shared on a cooperative basis by millions of people all over the world, and did this in such a fashion that users of that resource felt its existence to be threatened. When you do something like that, a lynch-mob style reaction is to be expected."

But they also brought in a lot of business. Siegel said that almost every response they got was positive. Within a month, they had received 20,000 positive responses and were still getting 500-1000 a day. Their Internet access provider, Internet Direct, Inc., of Phoenix, canceled their account. "They will not be back on our system," vowed Jeff Wheelhouse, system administrator for Internet Direct. He claimed that the volume of incoming complaints had crashed their computer about 15 times. "I lost an entire week dealing with this," said Wheelhouse. Ultimately, four Internet providers cut off their access or stopped them from posting. In June, they posted the ad again to 1000 newsgroups. Their new access provider, Performance Systems International, of Herndon, VA, ordered them to cease and desist. However, Canter threatened a $250,000 lawsuit against Internet Direct, claiming that is how much business they would lose because Internet Direct pulled the plug. And they threatened to sue others for defamation of character.

Within one month, Canter and Siegel had formed a company called Cybersell with the goal of making commercial advertising more pervasive on the net. The first thing that they were going to sell is "a health product, super-oxygenated water." Siegel said the extra oxygen gives you extra energy and "promotes the healing process." They were also working on a book explaining how others could spam Usenet.

Canter and Siegel were not new to controversy. Their law licenses were suspended in 1987 by the state bar associations of Florida and Tennessee, for conduct that the FL Supreme Court deemed "contrary to honesty." They resigned from the Florida bar in 1988 rather than fight subsequent allegations of neglect, misappropriation of client funds, and perjury filed against them by the bar. Siegel said the charges were unfounded. He said that rather than go to the expense of fighting the charges, they moved to Arizona and shifted their practice to immigration law.

The "Spam King." Jeff Slaton, the "Spam King," took up where Canter & Siegel left off. The Internet community had been dealing with spam by retaliating against the spammer and his ISP. But this didn't work with Slaton, who went into the spam business in July 1995. He sold his services and charged $425 per spam. Slaton's account with his ISP (Rt. 66, of Albuquerque) was yanked within a few days of his first spam. He tried to sign up with a competitor, Internet Direct, but they were warned by the president of Rt. 66 and refused to give him an account. He then began getting his customers' user-IDs and passwords, and running his spam program on their accounts. But this violated the terms of many of their licenses, and could have led to termination of their accounts.

Slaton's first spam was an ad for blueprints for atomic bombs. The advertisement went everywhere, to Usenet groups that might welcome the information, like sci.energy and rec.pyrotechnics. It went to groups that had nothing to do with the subject, like comp.os.msdos.4dos and sci.math. It even went to places where it was totally out of line, like a brain-tumor support group. He advertised that he could spam as many as 7000 newsgroups and mailing lists, and soon became known as the "Spam king," a moniker he adopted eagerly and even used in his advertising. However, in November 1995 at Comdex, he announced that he was done spamming. He said the process was self-defeating. Evidently he has kept his word. Canter, for his part, was disbarred in Tennessee for his spam.

Spam by junk e-mail The first spams involved Usenet newsgroups. But as other areas of the Web opened up, the average user began to spend less time on newsgroups. It was just a matter of time before junk e-mail would become the preferred method of spamming. A Philadelphia company named Cyber Promotions was the first. They sent junk e-mail messages by the millions. America Online cut off their account, but they then sued AOL. AOL settled out of court, allowing Cyber Promotions to keep spamming. But Compuserve won a preliminary injunction in February 1997 that prohibited Cyber Promotions from spamming any of their users. Subsequently AOL began to sue spammers itself.

The ethics of indiscriminate communications. What's wrong with spam? Well, spammers are exploiting for private gain a resource that they are not paying for. They pay only a monthly connection fee of about $20. The Internet allows massive replication and transmission of information; if everyone did it, the net would soon be brought to its knees. The practice could spread and make newsgroups and e-mail unusable."

The economics of advertising by spam are the opposite of direct marketing. In direct marketing, each communication costs money, so it helps to target your audience. In spam, once you've written the program, excluding irrelevant newsgroups is more costly. According to Phil Agre, assistant professor of communication at UCSD: "If such events become routine--and there's very little technical or legal reason why they won't--then the whole net will basically collapse through flame-wars, the closing of e-mail discussion groups to outsiders, and whatever." These episodes could also lead to legal restrictions. Several Congressmen, including Massachusetts Democrat . Edward Markey and New Jersey Republican Chris Smith have worked on model legislation to make it illegal to send out unsolicited commercial e-mail. Already, under Title 47 §227 of the U.S. Code (1991), it is against the law to use a fax machine, computer, or any other device to send unsolicited ads to fax machines. But this would establish a precedent of government regulation of the Internet. And anyway, it would not stop offshore spammers.

Canter & Siegel's defense. How do spammers defend themselves? Laurence Canter says it wasn't illegal. "These things that are written into the Internet culture are not written into the law," claims James Gleick, proprietor of an Internet service that Canter had earlier used to post to a smaller set of newsgroups. "The Internet is changing," Canter elaborated. "People don't like the invasion of what has been their private world. But as long as it's set up the way it is, where anyone has access to it, it's a public forum and they have to accept anything that comes into it." Canter and Siegel also protested that if they hadn't done it, someone else would have.

Electronic countermeasures. Internet users are not without weapons to confront spam. With most Usenet newsreaders, it is possible to set up kill files to selectively ignore articles with certain words in the subject, or articles by a certain author. E-mail bombs--large amounts of e-mail sent to the offender--are effective in cutting off spam, because they cause trouble for ISPs, sometimes crashing their computers. Finally there are "cancelbots," robot programs that send automatic "cancel" messages to newsgroups that have received spam. They make use of a Usenet facility that allows someone who posted a message to send out a subsequent "cancel" command. The criteria cancelbots use for cancellation are based on the Breidbart index, which is the product of the number of newsgroups a message was posted to and the number of times that it appeared. Usually a product of about 20 is cause for cancellation. The most widely known cancelbot is Cancelmoose, an anonymous programmer or progamming team that cancels and collects information on spam. This technique seems to be effective, as it has resulted in a decrease in the frequency of Usenet spams. For e-mail spams, several organizations have sprung up to combat bulk junk mailings.

The ethics of countermeasures. Let's consider the ethics of some of these responses. E-mail bombs load the net as a whole. But, so does the spammer. By shutting him down, have you provided a net benefit? Like e-mail itself, e-mail bombs are easy to forge, and can cast aspersions on people unrelated to the spam. They also cause collateral damage. Innocent users who subscribe to the same ISP as the spammer may experience slow service or system crashes.

The potential for abuse of e-mail bombs is illustrated by the online vote on setting up a newsgroup called alt.music.white-power. In May 1996, there was a vote on a proposal to establish an unmoderated Usenet newsgroup on "white power" music. To succeed, the yes votes had to outnumber the no votes by at least two to one. The proposal failed, by a vote of 592 in favor to 33033 against. Some of the tactics of the opponents were ethically questionable, including the setting up of an Internet Relay Chat robot that roved up and down channels in alphabetical order, spamming each channel with an exhortation to vote against the proposal. The individual in charge of counting the votes was mailbombed repeatedly by people who apparently thought he was behind the proposal. One person sent him 15,000 blank e-mail messages, but claimed it was due to an error in the software. An ethic that permits e-mail bombs may fail the test of being universalizable. If everyone responded to obnoxious messages with e-mail bombs, some people would inevitably make mistakes and bomb innocent parties.

Cancelbots pose their own ethical problems. A cancellation message is essentially a forgery, which is a dishonest technique. The possibility of misuse is also high. Postings about the Church of Scientology began to disappear from alt.religion.scientology in late 1994, with a notice that they had been "canceled because of copyright infringement." This is an allusion to the church's claim that these postings include writings that the church has copyrighted. However, the Church of Scientology disclaimed responsibility for the canceling. Ironically, the Church was previously accused of spamming itself because of postings of large numbers of nearly identical favorable messages about the church to newsgroups on which the church was discussed. In another incident, a terminally ill Ontario man named Austin Bastable posted a request on 27 newsgroups for help in committing suicide. When the post was canceled, he complained that he was being censored. However, the canceler said that it was canceled purely because it was posted to so many groups. Bastable later committed suicide with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Chain letters. Chain letters became a problem at about the same time as e-mail spam. A letter entitled, "MAKE MONEY FAST" originated in 1988, but was not widely circulated until several years later. The simplest form of a chain letter consists of a list of x people. You are supposed to send some money to the first person on the list. Then you remove the top person on the list, and add yourself at the bottom. You make y copies of the message and mail them to your friends. The claim is that you will eventually receive xy messages containing money. But chain letters cannot possibly work. If x = y = 5 in the above formula, you would stand to get messages from 3125 people. But if you were in the middle generation of the list, 511, or 48 million people, would have to receive letters in the 11th generation. Because they have the elements of fraud, chain letters are illegal.

Chain letters also have a tendency to take on a life of their own. The following example is not from cyberspace, but illustrates the problem. Craig Shergold was a 7-year-old boy who was dying of cancer. His last wish was to have his name entered in the Guiness Book of World Records for receiving the most greeting cards. He asked for cards via a chain letter. By May 1990, he had received 17 million greeting cards, and made the Guiness Book. Due to a successful operation to remove most of a brain tumor, he is no longer terminally ill. But he is still receiving 600 to 1000 letters a day, and the Guiness Book has eliminated the category. Since it was not asking for money, his letter evidently struck a more respondent chord among readers.

Chain-letter hoaxes. At least there was a real Craig Shergold. But Jessica Mydek never did exist. Her story is very similar to Shergold's. She was said to be seven years old and suffering from brain cancer. The doctors had given her six months to live. Supposedly corporate sponsors had agreed to donate three cents to cancer research for every person that forwarded the message about Jessica to the American Cancer Society. I received two or three copies of it myself, and likely you did too. After receiving thousands of such messages, the American Cancer Society issued a disclaimer, asking people not to forward the message.

Fear, as well as compassion, has served as an effective motive for propagating chain letters. One of the most common concerns a story that the FCC was going to impose per-minute charges for using a modem on a phone line. I received this message, ironically, from someone who teaches a computer-ethics course. There never was such a proposal; this seems to be the result of confusion with similar-sounding FCC proposals on other topics. But the story lives on; in mid-1999, the latest version was that the U.S. Postal Service wanted Congress to require postage for e-mail.

Some chain-letter hoaxes are simply due to confusion, but others are evidently malicious, designed to cast aspersions on companies by spamming in their name. This story concerns a Denver company called BusinessLink. Apparently, "BusinessLink" was writing fake spam ads for legitimate companies to create a backlash against them, and putting in their 800 numbers. This forced the victims to pay for angry calls complaining about something they had never done.

The Internet has opened up new opportunities for mass communication. Obviously, not all users are aware of the implications of such communications, or of the resources they consume. In an environment where new users are constantly joining in large numbers, this situation seems bound to continue. Internet users need to be aware of the vulnerabilities of these users, and need to avoid communications that can, intentionally or not, unfairly charge users for services they do not want to receive, degrade or crash their service, or play on their emotions to induce a response which is harmful to other people.