On Spam's Birthday, Three Cheers for 'Delete'

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Happy birthday, spam.

P.S.: Now go away.

It was 30 years ago this Saturday that users of Arpanet, a U.S. government-designed precursor to the Internet, logged onto their accounts to find what is considered the first piece of unsolicited commercial e-mail ever sent.

It was a pitch for a new computer. "We invite you to come see the 2020 and hear about the DECSYSTEM-20 family at the two product presentations we will be giving in California this month," read the missive, sent by a salesman named Gary Thuerk on May 3, 1978.

Thuerk's e-mail prompted an aggravated discussion among the service's users, the relatively small number of high-level academics with access to computers that then cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"This is a clear and flagrant abuse of the directory!" one of the hundreds of users on Thuerk's recipient list complained in a public reply.

It's unclear at this point whether Thuerk was able to sell any computers through his then-novel approach, but both spam and spam prevention have grown into major industries since that day. Market research firm Ferris Research estimates that business will spend $42 billion fighting spam this year in the United States. That's up from $35 billion last year.

As software tools to combat unwanted e-mails have gotten more sophisticated, so have spammers. These days, the tech-reliant world now sees first instances of a new type of spam shortly after any new technology catches on: text-messaging spam, blog spam and social network spam, to name a few.

Brad Templeton, an informal historian of unsolicited commercial e-mail, says that he worries that today's young people might move away from e-mail in favor of messaging through proprietary systems like Facebook, where users can control how friends and strangers communicate with them -- among other things, this can be a way to avoid spam.

Templeton, who is also chairman of the board of the digital free speech rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, does not like the idea.

The exciting thing about e-mail in the early days was that "everybody could e-mail everybody" he said. "It would be a real shame if spam pushed us back from that."

Rumors that the world will soon be rid of spam are almost as old as spam itself. They have always turned out to be premature.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicted in 2004 that spam would be defeated by now. Gates said he thought a system would be put in place under which senders of unwanted e-mails could be charged a fee, a move that would make spam commercially unviable.

This year marks another significant anniversary milestone for spammers: Viagra, one of the most popular products for spam pitches, hit the market in March 1998. The first spam messages offering the drug for sale hit e-mail inboxes shortly afterward.

In June that year, one of the first Viagra spam e-mails offered a bottle of 30 pills for $500. In an e-mail, the company, identified as "America YA Gifts Inc." listed an address and phone number in San Francisco. A woman who picked up the phone at the number this week said the number belongs to a "staffing firm."

Thuerk, that former computer salesman, does not appear to have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment.

For the record, Spam, the canned meat product from which unsolicited commercial e-mails take their name, turned 70 last year.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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