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[whitespace] Automated teller machine
Photograph by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Money Talks: Automated teller machines at banks have become a popular site for targeted advertising, with solicitations for investment opportunities, car loans and travel.

The Big Mindsuck

Why Spam Must Die. Die. Die.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

ONCE, IN A HIGH SCHOOL English class, I was assigned a Ray Bradbury short story about a man who murdered all of the intrusive electronic communication devices in his house.

When I read the 1953 story "The Murderer" in the early '60s, we, too, had electronic devices in our home, but nothing that anyone could call intrusive. The black AT&T rotary dial phone hardwired into the hallway wall would ring once every other day, maybe, and it was always one of my aunts. Radio ads were mostly for the latest rhythm & blues or gospel show in town. The commercials on our 9-inch black-and-white television were both jerky and jokey: Hertz Rent-A-Car, skipping the express counter altogether and just throwing you into your auto through the air, John Cameron Swayze swearing your Timex could survive a toss over Niagara Falls, some idiot father trying to convince us you could get the children to eat Malt-O-Meal by pretending the spoon was an airplane. Who believed such things? Who even paid attention?

This was some 10 years before my older brother called with the exciting news that he had just picked up something called an Apple II, and I really needed to get one for myself. Wrist radios--the personal, portable communication devices--were only present on the Dick Tracy comic book strip. Mail came once a day through the metal slot in the wall in the front room. The web was something my mother shuddered at and attacked with a broom.

But Bradbury was writing about a future time ... a time when the electronic communications connection was all-pervasive ... our time, now.

"Suppose you tell me when you first began to hate the telephone," a psychiatrist asks Mr. Albert Brock in the Bradbury story.

"The telephone's such a convenient thing," Brock replies. "It just sits there and demands you call someone who doesn't want to be called. Friends were always calling, calling, calling me. Hell, I hadn't any time of my own. When it wasn't the telephone it was the television, the radio, the phonograph. When it wasn't the telephone or radio or the phonograph it was motion pictures at the corner theater, motion pictures projected, with commercials on low-flying cumulus clouds. It doesn't rain anymore, it rains soapsuds. When it wasn't High-Fly Cloud advertisements, it was music by Mozzek in every restaurant; music and commercials on the buses I rode to work. When it wasn't music it was interoffice communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wristwatch on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes."

Brock ends up throwing his telephone down the garbage disposal, shooting his television and pouring a cup of water into the top of his office communications device. He is locked up in a mental institution, with the psychiatrist diagnosing him as "completely disoriented ... [r]efuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them."

FORTY-SIX YEARS AFTER Bradbury wrote "The Murderer," his vision of an all-intrusive communicating society has come to pass. And more and more, citizens are echoing Albert Brock in a revolt against intrusive, unwanted messages that bombard our lives. Spam, it is called, and it is legion.

According to J.D. Falk's Net Abuse FAQ, the term "spam" comes from an old Monty Python sketch, in which a group of Vikings in a Spam-only restaurant (the compressed-meat-in-a-can variety) sing "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam" over and over, louder and louder, until no one else in the restaurant could conduct any other conversation. Many Internet users complain that the online email version of spam can be just as obnoxious and produce the same results.

In its most-accepted definition, spam enters our lives through our computers (on the net it is sometimes called UBE, or "Unsolicited Bulk Email"). One anti-spam website defines the dissemination of spam as "flooding the Internet with many copies of the same message, in an attempt to force the message on people who would not otherwise choose to receive it. Most spam is commercial advertising, often for dubious products, get-rich-quick schemes, or quasi-legal services. Spam costs the sender very little to send--most of the costs are paid for by the recipient or the carriers rather than by the sender." Computer owners can get downright livid about receiving it, and they are not especially shy about articulating their feelings.

In a recent mailing to the news.admin.net-abuse.email newsgroup, a poster identified as "Mama" wrote concerning a particular piece of spam, "... [T]his feces sent using his product sure floated to the top of my mail box this morning and totally ruined my morning coffee. ... [I]f you're out there, you and your customers just proved a point! Better show your lawyers this before they spend your money trying to defend your products."

Another poster, calling him or herself "Anonymous," wrote, "I just checked my hotmail account for the first time in a few weeks, and I have 500 new messages, all spam! I was going through them looking at the headers and this one really ticked me off. Does anybody know who was behind this? The vast majority of people don't even know how to complain, and the ones who do often end up getting spammed hundreds of times a month in revenge. When is something going to be done about these fuckers? I'd like to see these assholes' lives and careers completely ruined and held up as an example to anybody else who thinks this type of invasion and harassment could be ethical."

Bob Blaylock of Santa Barbara, a regular contributor to the newsgroup, appends his signature line: "I hunt down and kill spammers and similar net-vermin. Do not send any form of advertising, bulk email, chain letters, or similar garbage to me, unless you wish to be my next prey."

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Spam-O-Rama: Websites devoted to the war against unsolicited commercial email.

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OF COURSE COMPUTER users, ever the problem-solvers, are fighting back. One way is to complain to their Internet Service Provider (ISP), which can take steps to block some of the spam that is passing through their server. ISPs aren't always happy about such requests, however. When Jay Hennigan sent a complaint to Marshalltown, Iowa's Marshallnet provider, asking simply that they "Please NUKE" the webpage of the alleged spamming offender, he got a blistering reply from Tim Kastelein of Marshallnet's support staff:

"I can assure you that [the alleged spammer] is one of the largest and most reputable auction houses in Iowa if not the midwest. We will not 'KILL' their site as we have helped them in the process of working on it. Thanks for the info on the 'abuse' and we will be sure they hear of this concern. ... I can understand and appreciate the concern, but I have a very hard time appreciating the methods. If this was a genuine concern of yours and not just a morbid hobby, I would hope you would take the time to express your concerns in a letter instead of filling out some cryptic form letter that you send to the Host of everyone that you get questionable mail from. Thank you for being so congenial, understanding, and dedicated to your cause. And thank you for not having anything better to do with your time."

Hennigan promptly posted Kastelein's reply to an anti-spam newsgroup, prompting several emails to Kastelein that he calls "hate mail, threats, etc., etc." He later admitted, a little sheepishly, that "if I had to do it all over again, I would leave the last line out of my letter, as it served no purpose but to fill my mail box with hate mail. ... I definitely understand the serious and ever-present problem of junk email. I hate it more than anyone."

A MORE FREQUENTLY used spam-stopper is the use of personal filtering systems that delete or put aside incoming email that has characteristics normally associated with spam. However, this generally only stems the flow, but doesn't stop it. Spammers, after all, are both entrepreneurs and computer geeks, a resourceful and potentially dangerous combination.

At Metro, for example, spam regularly slips through the anti-spam filter cracks into our office email. Last week, under the banner "**Increase Sales w\4 Powerful Words**" I was assured that the path to riches in my company was the words "We accept credit cards" and it said that I could be doing so within 10 days. Another offer, promising that "There's Only ONE 'Internet Spy & You' Program!!!" (thank God) offered software that would locate missing persons, find lost relatives, even trace deadbeat spouses. "You will be shocked and amazed by the secrets that can be discovered about absolutely everyone! Find out the secrets they don't want you to know!" the email crowed. "Discover dirty secrets your in-laws don't want you to know! ... Get anyone's name and address with just a license plate number! (Find that girl you met in traffic!) ... Learn how to get information on an ex-spouse that will help you win in court! (Dig up old skeletons) ... Find out about your daughter's boyfriend! (or her husband) ... Learn all about your mysterious neighbors! Find out what they have to hide! ... Be astonished by what you'll learn about people you work with! Did he really graduate college? Find out!" And finally, of course, it promised the American Dream: "Send anonymous email completely untraceable!" Absolutely chilling. Afraid that it might be independently scouring out information from my own computer even as I read it, I deleted the email immediately and flushed the trash right behind it (I know that's supposed to be the garbage of urban legend, but one can never be too sure these days).

ONE SILICON VALLEY organization has come up with a more effective, and more controversial, system. Like municipalities that take away the property of crack-house slumlords rather than trying to roust the crack dealers themselves, MAPS (the Mail Abuse Prevention System), a Redwood City nonprofit, goes after the ISPs themselves rather than the spammers. ISPs that initiate or pass on spam are put on what is called the Realtime Blackhole List; until the blacklisted ISP's name is removed, no mail from that ISP will be accepted by MAPS subscribers. The key is that spam-friendly ISPs can be targeted even if they aren't hosting the offending spammer but are only blindly passing messages along. With thousands of servers signing on with MAPS, Wired News recently estimated that a blacklisted server could be blocked from sending email to millions of users worldwide. Since its inception, MAPS has blacklisted such Internet biggies as Earthlink, Real Networks, America Online, Microsoft Network and GeoCities.

Internet providers--including company email systems--who subscribe to the MAPS Realtime Blackhole List can either inquire about the spam-friendly status of individual ISPs and block them selectively, or they can have their systems linked to MAPS so that the entire list of spam-abusers is automatically blocked out.

In its website FAQ on its blackhole policies, MAPS executive Paul Vixie calls spammers "lying conmen" and describes their practices as "theft of service."

Most ISPs accused of allowing spam treat spammers like the child-molesting uncle in the backroom, eager to proclaim their distance from the process. After RealPlayer distributor RealNetworks was dropped in the MAPS blackhole for failing to take subscribers off of its product email list, a company representative wrote, "RealNetworks is extremely sensitive to the issues surrounding misuse of e-mail and we are working with a number of groups to ensure that our policies are fair and our systems are solid. RealNetworks only sends e-mail to e-mail addresses that are voluntarily supplied. It is RN's policy to only send e-mail to those users who explicitly 'opt-in' to receive information on product upgrades, promotions and other news of interest. Users can indicate at the time of registration if they wish to receive e-mail from us and can remove themselves from the mailing list at any time."

If this was true, RealNetworks was asked, then why all the complaints?

"The system for removing people from our email list was not as solid as we wanted it to be," says spokesperson Leigh McMillan. "The problem wasn't that we weren't removing people but that, in some instances, we weren't removing people fast enough."

Given the lightspeed with which messages can start flooding an email account from the instant a mailing list is joined, spam complainers are predictably skeptical of that type of explanation.

While RealNetworks has set up a regular communication link with MAPS and other anti-spam groups to promote a "spam-free" environment, other blacklisted companies take a less friendly approach. Last month, CNET reported that Network Solutions (until recently the sole registrar of Internet domain names) has threatened to sue MAPS if its email is blocked. "[MAPS] should be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions should a company such as Amazon.com lose its domain name, and thus its e-commerce business, as a result of having its notices and invoices intercepted and destroyed," NSI's general counsel recently wrote in a warning letter to MAPS.

Do the legal threats bother the Peninsula-based MAPS?

"As dual citizens of the Internet and of the United States of America, we worry every day about the Sherman Antitrust Act," MAPS' Vixie writes. "Are our actions interpretable as conspiracy in restraint of trade? So far, no. We've been threatened with legal action on about a dozen occasions, and our legal advisers have said it will depend on the judge you get. Thus far no one who has threatened us has done more than initial discovery motions, so, for now, we wait. No cases are pending that we know of."

Latrine
Photograph by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Nature's Cold Call: The captive audience in public restrooms has proven irresistible to marketers as well.

IS UNWANTED COMMERCIAL intrusion into modern lives confined to our computers? Unfortunately, it's not. We seem to be spinning out of control into the world of unrestricted advertisement and communication envisioned 46 years ago by Ray Bradbury. "Spam spam spam spam spam," the pirates chant into our ears, until we can hear nothing else, not even our own thoughts. There seems to be no escape. The din has pervaded our most sacred places of personal peace, places we had every reason to believe were sacrosanct.

It used to be that the only problems you had to contend with in a public restroom, for example, were unclean commode seats, no toilet paper, and some guy peeping through the crack in the stall. Increasingly, public pee-ers must put up with billboard advertisements while they go about their relief. David Dorfman of New York's Insite Advertising, another bathroom specialist, told the Associated Press that public restrooms are full of "active, social people who are spending money." "It's a captive audience," chimes in Rebecca O'Keefe, general manager for bathroom ad specializer Advantage Indoor, to the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Business Times. "They don't have the ability to change the channel or turn the page." Whereas bathroom ads used to be confined to condoms and telephone numbers promising a good time, respectable enterprises such as Proctor & Gamble, Noxema, Sony and Miller Beer are now pasting their billboards between the urinals and the stalls. All that can be said is that at least people have an alternative when the toilet paper runs out.

7-Eleven stores in selected markets have begun running 15-second commercials on their ATM machines while customers are waiting for their cash. "It seems to be a viable way to make an impression on a captive audience," Fox Searchlight Pictures marketing director Marc Weinstock told the Associated Press. "People are kind of sitting in front of the machine anyway and liked it."

Remember when the worst offense you could suffer on the telephone was getting put on hold with Muzak in the background? Now, companies like PacBell incorporate ads into their automatic phone-answering menu, so that you have to listen to the pitches while you're waiting to hear what number to press.

Think you can get away from it all with a day at the beach? Not a chance. Incredibly, last summer Skippy Peanut Butter and Snapple soft drinks began carving out 12-foot-by-4-foot mini-billboards into beach sand along the New Jersey shore. When the tide and many bare feet erase the ads' traces from the sand, the advertising company comes out in the morning and presses them in again. Beach'n Billboards charges $25,000 a month per beach for the ads, according to the Associated Press.

And what could be better for quiet reflection than the time spent pumping your gas at the self-service station? Not anymore. Tosco's Union 76 stations have begun running video commercials on gas pump screens while the fuel flows. The commercials hawk the hot dogs and coffee conveniently available in the 76 station stores. Scared the hell out of me the first time I heard one. They are so annoyingly loud that they cannot be successfully avoided, unlike the squeegie-toting panhandlers who can be shooed away with a firm no. Well, actually, there is an easy way to avoid the 76 commercials. There's usually a Shell or a Standard station somewhere nearby.

Even weddings, the most sacred of our cultural institutions, are not immune. Earlier this month, the San Francisco Examiner reported on a Philadelphia couple financing their $34,000 joining ceremony with ads. "[The bride's] perfume came from a local distributor, and coffee was provided gratis from a neighborhood supplier," the article stated. "Advertisers had their names appear on the invitations and thank-you cards, on cards at the buffet, on scrolls at the dinner table, in an ad placed in a local independent newspaper and in a verbal 'thank you' that followed the first toast." Wedding rings and a Mexican honeymoon were forked up by 24 sponsoring companies.

BUT AS ALWAYS in these cases, the worst may be yet to come.

Think you can get away from it all by driving up to the Santa Cruz Mountains, finding a peaceful spot to sit, and spending the afternoon staring up at clouds floating lazily by in an uncluttered blue sky? Think again.

Six years ago, a company called Space Marketing Concepts of Roswell, Ga. (and why is it that a lot of these goofy things come out of places called Roswell? ... hmmm), proposed launching billboards into space. "Space billboards would range from about half the size of the moon to the full size of the moon," reports the Federal Communications Law Journal. "[They] would be visible all the time or only during daylight hours (mainly adjacent to sunrise and sunset); could last from two weeks to one year to forever ... [and] would operate in a low-Earth and sun-synchronous orbit with corporate sponsors having the final say as to their 'exact' locations."

Space Marketing CEO Michael Lawson was quoted in a company news release as saying, "A tremendous opportunity [exists] for a global-oriented company to have [its] logo and message seen by billions of people on a history making, high profile vehicle." Space Marketing proposed the first application of the space billboard for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed. Maynard Jackson, then the mayor of Atlanta, called the idea "environmental pollution," while the late astronomer Carl Sagan labeled it "an abomination." A spokesperson for the American Physical Society "called the orbiting billboard [idea] horrifying and absurd" and Congress considered legislation banning the practice.

The considerable hue and cry scotched the orbiting billboard plan for the Atlanta Olympics, but the idea remains somewhere on somebody's drawing board. Last year, local environmental author John Miller, who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains and specializes in writing about billboard pollution, told the Los Gatos Weekly-Times that the technology for orbiting billboards still exists, "so the only remaining question is when some advertiser will have the audacity to do it." And given the fact that an earth-orbiting billboard could be launched from any amenable country, there may be no way of stopping their deployment short of an enforceable worldwide treaty (ha!) or extremely long-range, hand-held missiles.

UNFORTUNATELY, the proliferation of intrusive advertising in our lives appears to have all the inevitability of a boulder tumbling downhill. The American economy has been set up on producing things which Americans don't actually need, and the only way to make it work is to convince us over and over and over again that buying all this stuff is really necessary.

So what can be done to deal with it?

Well, the surest way to combat the computer email variety of spam is to locate the hole where the vermin makes its nest. Me, I think I'm running Disk Doctor on my hard drive to resurrect the address of that Internet Spy & You program. Seems like if anyone could track down the originators of junk email, it would be them.

As for the rest of the unwanted ads? Closing up your eyes and plugging your ears with your fingers and chanting "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam" in retaliation is not the ideal long-term solution, though it may work as a temporary aid till you can run out of earshot. Anyhow, we're an inventive society, always willing to fill a need. TV remote controls have mute buttons, VCRs can fast-forward. Maybe some Silicon Valley garage geek can come up with a set of virtual goggles and headphones programmed to allow in the view of grass and sky and the laughter of little children, but to block out anything resembling an advertisement. In later years we might have it come in chip form, surgically implanted somewhere in our brains, and around the turn of Y3K even engineered into our genes before birth.

And if you can't wait around that long, you could always opt for the Albert Brock solution from the Bradbury story. Carry around a canteen of water for use with offending electrical devices. It would probably work well on ATMs and gas pumps and such. If nothing else, it would sure get their attention.

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From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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