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"Monty Says Spam I Am!"
(A nostaligic reminder from 1996 of the good old days)

Francis Vale

 

On Jan. 4, 1996, 21st sent out a message to 22 usenet newsgroups announcing its publication on the Internet. Due to the multi-disciplinary nature of 21st, there was no easy way to pigeon hole the message in just one or two newsgroups.

This is the message that went out:

"Announcing a new, cool, biweekly WebZine, '21st', covering technology convergence, including: Audio/Video systems & content, computers, the Web, molecular computing, and human consciousness."


What happened next is documented in The Great Spam Meatball Audit Trail. Suffice to say, 21st quickly got the 'Net's equivalent of a State Police Traffic violation.

It had been thought Spamming was the indiscriminate posting of messages to multiple newsgroups who would have no interest in what was being said; e.g., the infamous case of the immigration lawyers who sent out an advertisement for their services to every possible news group. But, like many others with whom we discussed this matter afterwards, 21st had the wrong definition. Spam is properly defined as excess message quantity. Message content has nothing to do with it.

We next saw 21st's heinous actions lit up in lights on the 'Net's public pillory docks, otherwise known as 'news.admin.net-abuse.announce.' 21st was thus thrust into some pretty lurid cyber-company, brushing alongside the likes of crazed sex ads, get filthy rich in 24 hours, and other such schemes.

The 'Net violiation message which informed 21st of its Spam, and what to do about it -- crosspost; don't send separate messages -- also included the following cautionary words:

"Unless the originator has made a clear and obvious effort to cease spamming (which includes an apology and undertaking to do so in news.admin.net- abuse.misc)."


So, per the above 'Net rules, 21st apologized:

"This an open apology from 21st webzine.

We were very much aware of Spamming before we sent out our post. As we understood it, Spamming involves *indiscriminate* posting to those who may find the post useless, or a waste of bandwidth. We took great care in selecting only those groups who may have an interest in reading our new WebZine, 21st. Our WebZine has multiple editorial sections, each with a different focus. Hence the potential appeal to a broad range of user groups.

We sent the post to 22 groups, apparently exceeding the spam threshold by 2.

Regardless, ignorance of the 'law' is no excuse. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused."


What followed our apology was a lively discussion among the Net experts in the Usenet group, 'news.admin.net-abuse.misc.' For several days, 21st's sin/confession provided much fodder for the Collegium Cardinale of the Net. And what we saw was sad, and downright depressing.

Sad, because the Net experts could not even agree among themselves how to handle those who had mistakenly Spammed.

Sad, because 21st got conflicting advice on how to avoid this situation in the future.

Sad, because the Net experts fell out among themselves, accusing each other of such things as not understanding the Briedbart Index. ("defined as the sum of the square roots of how many newsgroups each article was posted to.")

Sad, because we got an e mail that said we would likely be caught out again for Spamming if we followed one particular person's reposting advice; and that this same message also included an ad which said "e mail advertisements will be proofread for a US$100 fee."

Sad, because what started out as a well justified 'Net rule to prevent the saturation of limited disc space on Usenet servers, and clogging of limited net bandwidth, somehow became perverted into a warped theology of the Overseer Net Gods.

[The religious analogy is apt. E.g., in the beginning, there was an animal, which if you ate it uncooked, you died. So, a rational and well justified tribal rule soon evolved that forbade the eating of this animal. Several tribal generations later, the social powers that be somehow decided that you risked God's wrath if you ate of the forbidden flesh. Soon, religious committees were established to decide how great a sin this was, and the mechanisms for heavenly forgiveness, assuming the miscreant diner hadn't died. The animal finally became a religious taboo, and the original reasons for not eating the lucky beast (from the animal's point of view) were lost in time.]

Sad, because in one of the many messages sent to 21st by the angered Net Gods, there was this remarkable exchange between its sender and Francis Vale (FV), the editor of 21st.

FV> "I publicly apologized to Usenet. Was this not enough for you?"

Sender> "No, because you seemed to regret crossing the threshold, not excessive multi-posting when it was unnecessary. "


Essentially, this sender, all on his own, decided that the 21st's public apology was not valid, because it somehow lacked emotional sincerity. The fact that 21st learned something of value from the experience, and changed its behavior accordingly, was not enough for this particular Net God. 21st was damned to Net Hell, without any hope for spiritual redemption.

It quickly became hard to figure out who were the Net Daemons, and who were the Net Gods.

Looked at another way, this affair is depressing because it clearly shows how the Internet is not yet ready for prime time, despite what the overheated media says.

It is depressing because the Net has people acting as self-anointed experts, who also think they can appropriate unto themselves the ultimate censor's decision of what may or may not be value to others. Repeatedly, in the news group discussion, statements were made that no more than 'x' number of groups would be interested in reading any particular cross posting, from anyone. Do these self-styled 'experts' have an inside track into the minds of the millions of people who read the Usenet?

It is depressing because, in their forum, one of the net experts suggested that all announcements need to first go through a moderator. Who elects this moderator? The news group? Or is this person simply anointed by the Net Gods? Do the Net Gods remove this moderator if this person is not, in the Net Gods' unilateral opinion, acting responsibly?

Please note: many of the people who sent e mail to 21st used PGP encryption. Despite the cipher, the message is still clear: these expert users do not want others to appropriate unto themselves the right to read, and possibly censor, their thoughts. But apparently, the Net expert's droit du signeur shall not be abridged.

It is depressing because soon, thanks to new devices like 10+ megabit cable modems, millions of 'smart' TV users will soon have access to the 'Net, and many will naively walk into the same 'Net God' buzzsaw as 21st did.

It is depressing because what will then likely happen is that many large companies will use this great customer turn-off as an excuse for creating their own private, high speed nets, offering much better service than the Internet. Users will then flock in droves to these new networks.

It is depressing because the Net Gods will likely welcome such a commercial development with open arms, in the mistaken belief that the great unwashed will now be cleansed from the 'Pure Internet'; leaving the Net just for the mutual enjoyment of their Olympian cronies.

It is depressing because the Net Gods will not realize until it is too late that if this commercial development takes place, the monies to fund the Internet will dry up, and the Net Gods will end up receding into the twilight of Cyber-Valhalla.

It is depressing because the Net Gods screwed up yet another opportunity for building advocacy. The 21st has learned, the hard way, that expulsion from the Garden of Net Eden may be painful, but knowledge of the world is always preferable to blindly following rules promulgated by those tiny few who have no sense of who they are, why they are, and where they are going.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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