November 21, 1997

Spam Dispute Brings Usenet and CompuServe to Brink

A self-appointed jury of spam foes had condemned CompuServe to the ultimate penalty: death. The crime: harboring hawkers of get-rich-quick schemes and pornography who were inundating Usenet, the unregulated network of thousands of discussion groups.

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CompuServe Reports Smaller Loss

But before the spam foes prevented all CompuServe users from posting to Usenet, the giant online provider abruptly changed its ways. On Wednesday, it announced it would no longer tolerate spammers, and the plan was revoked.

"I predict that CompuServe will soon be a definite 'white hat' in the ongoing battle against spam," said Rick Buchanan, one of the volunteer de-spammers for Usenet, who initially announced their "Usenet Death Penalty" against CompuServe on Monday. "Of course, we'll be monitoring things just in case."

The tension between Usenet, one of the Internet's oldest forums, and CompuServe, one of the oldest commercial online services, seems resolved. Yet it underscores ongoing and pressing struggles for Usenet, which once was the heart and soul of the Internet.

The plain fact is that Usenet is in a fight for its own life. Increasingly, it has become a dumping ground for spam — and is the single-most heavily spammed forum on the Net. Today, 33 percent of all postings to Usenet are considered spam, and fully 33 percent more are commands sent to delete the spam, according to independent sources.

The troubles stem from the very characteristics of Usenet that made it so popular in the first place. A global network of 40,000 news and discussion groups, Usenet is owned by no one, easily and freely accessible, and, virtually ungoverned, except for the few anti-spam vigilantes. It is a river of news groups, that, like the Internet itself, flows from server to server.

So it also has become a central venue for advertisers, particularly adult Web sites, to easily reach the millions of Usenet participants. With a few simple commands, advertisers can send the same message to thousands of discussion groups, regardless of whether the posts are relevant or offensive to participants.

“This has been my home since 1983, but it's been invaded.”

Rick Buchanan,
Usenet member

In a recent discussion on basketball, for example, 3 of the top 10 posts were for a get-rich-quick scheme (offering $500 a week to anyone who sends $2 to a particular address), a "Christian Business Opportunity," and an ad for the "Puerto Rico Business Magazine." In short, according to Usenet aficionados, the forum is suffering the Death of the Commons.

"Nobody owns the cow, so everybody is milking it to death," Buchanan said.

"This has been my home since 1983, but it's been invaded," he added. "They're trying to burn it down."

It's a far cry from the Usenet of old. The forum, which sprung up in the early 1980s, was long fiercely anti-spam. Even as recently as three years ago, advertisers who interrupted discussions with irrelevant fodder were met with hate-mail, flame mail and often were spammed themselves.

The turning point came in 1994. In an issue that gained wide attention, two Arizona lawyers spammed more than 13,000 news groups with an ad offering to help people obtain green cards. The lawyers were widely criticized, but the floodgates had opened. Spammers are still attacked on Usenet, but their practice faces far less mass rejection.

At the same time, some observers believe that the evolution (or de-evolution) of Usenet is not all bad. Shabbir Safdar, founder of the Voters Telecommunications Watch at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that as Usenet has gotten less attractive, it has been replaced by individual Web-based discussion groups that are more clearly governed by a discussion host.

"We're seeing the death of the unmoderated Usenet," Safdar said. "We're going to evolve better systems."

Greg Ryan, president of Exec-PC in Milwaukee, thinks any pronouncement of Usenet's demise is far too premature. However, Ryan said the problems confronting Usenet, and the Internet companies that help to carry the traffic, should not be exaggerated.

Exec-PC, a regional Internet service provider in Wisconsin, is the ninth-largest carrier of Usenet traffic in the world. That means that millions of Usenet posts travel through Exec-PC's five news servers — the computers that store and process news postings — each day. The spam on Exec-PC's servers has increased 500 percent in the last 6 to 12 months, Ryan said.

"It's amazing. It's a nightmare," he said. "It's money because we have to pay for the bandwidth and we need more hard disk space."

The trouble is, it's not so simple to stop the spam since it emanates from thousands of different sources. A handful of self-proclaimed anti-spammers are trying, though.

Appointed by no one (since Usenet is ungoverned), they have taken it upon themselves to search out the most egregious spammers. The anti-spammers then send out cancel messages, which go into news servers, like the one at Exec-PC, and delete the offensive content.

"Some people don't like what we're doing. They call us a cabal," Buchanan said. "I think we're a citizen's militia. We've taken up arms to save" Usenet.

In the case of CompuServe, the anti-spammers said the Columbus Ohio-based online service was a consistent source of massive amounts of spam. Over recent weeks, the cadre of anti-spammers said they approached CompuServe with their concerns, but got no response. "Spammers were going there as a safe haven," Buchanan said.

The use of the "death penalty" is particularly harsh because it would not only cancel spam coming from CompuServe, but also legitimate messages. The anti-spammers have only once before issued a "death penalty," to UUNet in August of this year, but it also was lifted within days.

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Usenet Servers Under Hacker Attack
(March 18, 1997)
Almost immediately after CompuServe got news of the anti-spammers move, it acted. On Wednesday, it posted an "acceptable use policy," which dictates rules for using CompuServe to post news messages and send e-mail. The policy precludes sending spam, chain letters or other inappropriate posts.

Gail Whitcomb, CompuServe spokeswoman, said the company had not been ignoring calls from anti-spammers, but said they "had not contacted the right people." Further, she said the change in policy at CompuServe was not prompted by the "death penalty," but by the company's own two-month long investigation in to the problems

"We are very aware of the problem and have been looking at solutions," Whitcomb said. "We're starting to look at CompuServe members that are offenders."

Whitcomb said CompuServe joins a small group of Internet companies that have posted acceptable use policies. In fact, CompuServe is only one of a growing number of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Internet companies that are seeking to preclude users from sending spam, according to the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Jonah Seiger, the group's communication director, said ISPs should not be responsible for the content of member messages, but they should try to stop spamming conduct. "It's not a question of content," he said. "It's a question of conduct."

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