A Brief History of Spam – Initial Reactions Were Mixed

ragebabyWelcome back. In our last post, we took a look at the very first email spam message ever sent. If you haven’t read that post yet, you may want to do that first, before proceeding with this one. Go ahead, we’ll wait. Back? Great, you’re ready to go along with the rest of us as we take a look at how the original users of the ARPANET reacted to receiving the first spam email.

Allegedly, the sender of the first spam message, Gary Thuerk, didn’t think he was doing anything explicitly against the rules. Nevertheless, he notified his boss to be ready for a possible negative response. I’d say that in addition to his gift for marketing, Thuerk had a gift for understatement. The first indication that his message would not be universally well received was when his boss received a call from the Defense Communications Agency, who actually “ran” the ARPANET, at least as much as any one entity did. Remember, the ARPANET was funded by the US Federal Government and it was the DCA that called the shots. Officials at the DCA registered a complaint with Thuerk’s boss, but that was just the beginning.

The first official response, from Major Raymond Czahor of the DCA, sent out to the same group of hundreds of ARPANET users that the spam message went out to, identified that the commercial nature of this message constituted a “flagrant violation” and indicated that “appropriate action” was being taken.

Much like today, it seems that many of the recipients could not stop themselves, and had to pile on with replies that again went out to all users. Consider that at this time, what passed for high-speed network links were at best 56 Kbps, so any extra traffic was costly and inconvenient for many who were trying to use the ARPANET for, I don’t know, actual work. Jake Feinler did have some reasonable comments that she wanted to share, and in light of some of the rumblings about banishment, public flogging, and worse (okay, I may have made up the bit about flogging, but I still maintain it is an appropriate response to some spammers of today) they seem to have been called for. Feinler was, at the time, the Director of Network Information Systems Center at Stanford Research Institute, and should be considered one of the founders of the Internet. While many ARPANET members did not care for the spam, they seemed at least as concerned about the possibilities of censorship on the fledging network. Here’s what Feinler had to say about this.

I have heard some rumblings about ‘control’ and ‘censorship’ of the net by the powers-that-be, but I feel in these two particular areas they are leaning over backwards to be fair to the big guys and the small guys alike. In addition, the official message sent out asked us (‘us’ being network users) to address the issue ourselves. I personally think this is reasonable and think we should lend our support or otherwise be saddled with controls that will be a nuisance to everyone involved.

If Dr. Feinler could only see then the myriad controls we deal with now, like blacklists and Bayesian filters and the like.

Mark Crispin, the author of IMAP, the creator of the 32 bit address space, and author of several RFCs was a researcher at Stanford at the time, weighed in as well. While he expressed some interest in learning more about the DEC-20, he did call out that the message in question was very commercial, and also that the way the DEC market used the ARPANET directory to target his recipients was a serious violation.

The last one we’ll mention was Richard Stallman yes, THE Richard M. Stallman, or as he often goes by, RMS. The founder of GNU, copyleft, the Free Software Foundation, and visionary was at MIT at the time. RMS took a much lighter view, and while he did not receive the original message, he had certainly heard about it and thought that it would have been good to get. He also challenged some of the earlier restrictions reiterated by Major Czahor, stating that messages like job postings would be a good thing to have on the ARPANET. He then joked in his first response that a “net” dating service would be a good addition to the ARPANET! Then, in a classic bit of snark, he followed up his own comment, stating that he had seen the original message and that no one should be allowed to send a message on ARPNET with such a large hearder. Fast forward to the late 90s and into the 2000s where you started to receive emails with several hundred email addresses that had previously been forwarded the message and you should get a smile from RMS’ jibe.

So, the first spam message was met with mixed reviews from three of the founders of the modern Internet. If only they had seen then what would become of email today and the problems spam causes. Could they have done something different with SMTP to make it harder to spam? Perhaps. Some of the technologies we use today, that could be very effective if only everyone used them, might have become required components of the protocol. I’ll add that to my list of things to do if I ever invent a time machine-convince Postel et al to tighten up security within SMTP.

In our next post, we’re going to have a little fun, taking a look at the most popular origin story of how spam got its name. Grab your Viking helmets, and bring your sense of humour!

Written by Casper Manes

I currently work as a Senior Messaging Consultant for one of the premier consulting firms in the world, I cut my teeth on Exchange 5.0, and have worked with every version of Microsoft’s awesome email package since then, as well as MHS, Sendmail, and MailEnable systems. I've written dozens of articles on behalf of my past employers, their partners, and others, and I finally decided to embrace blogging and social media, so please follow me on Twitter @caspermanes if you enjoy my posts.