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May 25, 1997

Flood of junk E-mail brings
complaints, bills to stop it

By Timothy C. Barmann

Some time ago, there were news reports about a man who did his best to receive all the junk mail that would fit into his mailbox. He wasn't into self-torture -- he burned the mailings in a special furnace to heat his house.

As for electronic junk mail, however, there do not seem to be any redeeming qualities. Unsolicited e-mail has become a growing source of irritation to Internet users, and the problem promises to get worse before it gets any better.

Simple economics has turned the Internet into one of the most widely used forms of communications, but it has also made it a haven for junk e-mailers. It costs virtually nothing to e-mail hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of messages. Even if only a tiny percentage respond to these digital sales pitches, it's all worthwhile to those mailbox stuffers.

Bulk mailers collect e-mail addresses from the thousands of Internet discussion groups. They unleash electronic robots -- computer programs -- designed to "harvest" e-mail addresses from messages posted in these newsgroups.

State Sen. John A. Celona, D-North Providence, believes he has the answer. On May 9, he introduced legislation that would make it illegal to send unsolicited e-mail.

His bill would expand an existing state law, which prohibits sending unsolicited advertisements by fax machine, to include transmission of the same material through a computer network. The crime would be a misdemeanor and carry a fine of up to $200 for each occurrence.

"This legislation would stop the flood of junk e-mail in Rhode Island," Celona said in a news release.

While Celona has high hopes for his bill, there are some serious problems with it.

First, the bill may raise some constitutional issues, according to Mark C. Pomeroy, an attorney with Bricker & Eckler, a Columbus, Ohio, "cyberlaw" legal practice.

The bill may violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that commerce between states should be regulated by the Congress, Pomeroy said.

Beyond that, enforcement of such a law would be impractical.

While there might be ways for Rhode Island authorities to go after junk e-mailers in other states, it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute violators in other countries.

Celona said he wasn't sure how foreign enforcement would work. "That's something we'll have to talk to legal counsel and address it the same way as the facsimile law," he said.

Another legal effort to slow the flood of junk e-mail was announced on Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). He introduced legislation that would require all unsolicited commercial e-mail messages to have the word "advertisement" as the first word in the subject line. The bill would also require all Internet providers to install screening technology that could filter out these messages, if the user elects that option. Internet providers would have to shut off bulk e-mailers if they don't comply with the labeling rules.

Meanwhile, there are some hackers who are taking matters into their own hands. They have declared an all-out war against the self-proclaimed "king" of bulk e-mail, Sanford Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions of Philadelphia.

Wallace has been one of the most flagrant "spammers" on the Internet, and he claims to send out as many as 4 million e-mail ads a day.

Wallace has frequently been a target of hackers in the past, but earlier this month, a sophisticated attack on his network shut down his operation for a time.

"It's a very tough thing to do," Wallace told the Wall Street Journal. "I don't know how they did it."

Wallace has also been targeted by lawyers of the two largest online services, America Online and CompuServe, which have taken legal action against him and his firm.

In February, a district court judge in Ohio ruled that junk e-mail sent by Cyber Promotions amounted to trespassing on CompuServe's service. Cyber Promotions agreed to pay $65,000 in legal fees. Earlier this month, another court order prohibited Cyber Promotions from sending unsolicited mail to CompuServe subscribers.

America Online reached an agreement with Wallace that allows him to send his mailings to its subscribers who choose to receive them.

Kate Delhagen, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, said that junk e-mail is a real problem on the Internet, but at this point, it remains an annoyance, not a threat to e-mail's popularity.

"This will not derail the e-mail train at all," she said.

She thinks that junk e-mail will eventually become less of a problem as more legal challenges are brought against companies such as Cyber Promotions. Also, software barriers will become more effective at blocking unwanted e-mail, she said.

"People will gain control of their mailboxes."

To that end, an Oregon marketing company has compiled a list of bulk e-mailers that it has made available for downloading. The list (http://www.mmgco.com/nospam) can be used with a popular e-mail program, Qualcomm's Eudora Pro, to filter out unsolicited e-mail.

George Matyjewicz, a New Jersey Internet user, seems to think that the junk e-mail is problem is made worse by so many people complaining about it via e-mail.

He posted a message to a number of discussion lists on Wednesday, which said the number of complaints about unsolicited e-mail on one of the lists he subscribes to outnumbered actual junk mail by 19 to 1.

He wrote: "What do you say, we use the delete key, and stop wasting bandwidth and time?"

Related sites:

Free-Net changes

The South County modem number for the Ocean State Free-Net, the statewide computer network, has changed. South County users should have their modems call either the Wakefield number at 788-9720 or the Westerly number at 348-4208. For more information about the Free-Net, send e-mail to freenet@osfn.org, or leave a message on the Free-Net help desk line at 272-5388, and a volunteer will return your call.

Computer calendar

June 16 -- Andy Green, president of InteleCom Data Systems, an East Greenwich-based Internet provider, will hold a live Internet radio show at 9 p.m. that is accessible to anyone on the World Wide Web who has a sound card. Green will discuss some of the latest innovations in Internet technology, and when they will be available. You'll also need the free Real Audio player, available from http://www.realaudio.com/. Green's show will be linked from the IDS home page at http://www.ids.net/.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.