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January 27, 1998

S t a r t B u t t o n

Hoax du Jour: E-j-mail Extortion

by David Spalding

It was a quiet year, 1997, according to Rob Rosenberger, host of the COMPUTER VIRUS MYTHS home page. Still, the Christmas season warmed up the yuletide hoax pudding a bit.

People are taken in by bullsh*t, and companies embarrass themselves by publishing old, inaccurate or erroneous information (or all of the above). For instance, in a cautionary "notice" about e-mail virus hoaxes, Mirabilis included a warning against any "HTML mail-message, linking to a gif/jpeg file, which has a virus in it." Sorry, it's an old April's Fool joke, JPEG images can't harbor viruses. Mirabilis was hit with a virus hoax themselves, in the form of a rumor of viruses passed around with their ICQ "wwpager" and chat software.

In other corners of the Net, a security flaw in a popular Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client blossomed into a full-fledged (though half-baked) "AN AN AS" virus scare. Another turkey takes flight. Turns out that, like e-mail attachments, certain versions of the mIRC client have a flaw that allows someone to send a SCRIPT.INI file which could behave maliciously on the recipient's system, and even spread to other users. More intriguing to me is the continuing hallucination by "e-j-mailers" that Netizens are willing to tolerate, are even enthusiastic about, unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) in their Inboxes. Most surveys indicate grass roots support for ritualistic genital mutilation of those who generate revenue by clogging the bandwidth and systems with unwelcome spam (junk email). But e-j-mailers like Sanford Wallace (Cyber Promotions) evoke such erroneous American issues as free speech and the free enterprise system to justify their antagonistic use of the Net.

Today's example, class (prepare to suspend your disbelief): As reported on CNN Interactive, the National Organization of Internet Commerce (NOIC) had threatened to reveal 1 million American Online (AOL) customer addresses on January 1, 1998, in a clearly childish attempt to harass AOL over what the NOIC claims are AOL's anti-small business practices.

NOIC president Joe Melle would have you believe that AOL's aggressive actions (legal and technical) to block e-j-mail to AOL's users as an effort to put small Internet businesses out of business, by denying them the UCE method of commerce. "Our goal is to protect [business owners'] Civil rights and their right of free speech." [NOIC home page.] According to CNN, "[Melle] told the Los Angeles Times that barring the use of affordable bulk e-mail on the network would prevent small business from gaining access to as many as half the regular users of the Internet." He doesn't stop there; the NOIC claims that ISPs' and online services' blocking of spam is "unconstitutional."

Their solution? A threat to publicly post 1 million AOL users' addresses on the NOIC web site on January 1, 1998, so that ANYONE can download the names and bombard the third party victims, AOL users, with even more e-j-mail. Gee, that'll show 'em.

On Tuesday, December 30, 1997, AOL sent a letter to the kind folks at the NOIC, threatening to "seek full legal redress, including compensatory and punitive damages," if NOIC posted the addresses publicly. [CNN] NOIC's reasoned response? On December 31, 1997, the NOIC promised to post 5 million addresses on their web site on January 8, 1998. In an open letter on the NOIC web site, Mr. Melle wraps himself in the altruistic bedclothes of free enterprise, free speech, service to the consumer, and productive and egalitarian use of the Net. Why then the malicious act of disclosing individuals' private addresses on their web site?

AOL claims this is cyberterrorism. Actually, terrorist acts are random acts against innocents that disrupt the peace of a community, and inspire aggressive law enforcement actions, thereby causing further inconvenience to a populace. All to prove a point. This is extortion. NOIC wants AOL to knuckle under, disarm the firewalls and filters, and let spammers have a field day carpet-bombing users' mailboxes with trash. If AOL doesn't, why then the NOIC will just invite the entire e-j-mailer community to mail-bomb AOL users from all fronts, an action that could cripple or crash AOL's mail services. Pretty ugly, eh?

So what's the Hoax du Jour? As usual, e-j-mailers make the case that they're just a bunch of ethical businessmen (and women) who wanna make an honest buck selling great values directly on the Net. They may also make the case that they're the pioneers of that "online commerce" thing you've been hearing about. Hell, this is American free enterprise at its finest. Bull. What loudmouths like Sanford Wallace and Joe Melle WON'T tell you is that e-j-mail also constitutes junk mail offering useless products or services, sexual-explicit material or online sites, and even illegal multilevel marketing schemes. There are no credentials required to send e-mail, so anyone can send out something like "$$ Get Rich Quick $$" or "Ever wanted to tie your girlfriend up?" And, contrary to their claims, e-j-mail is not a cost-free resource. Instead of costing the vendor (as in postal junk mail), e-j-mail costs the user in terms of time, bandwidth, disk space, and time to receive, identify and delete unwanted e-mail. E-j-mailers even support lame legislation that protects their activity while shifting the burden of cost and support onto Internet service providers and users [CAUCE].

How to recognize e-j-mail?
Here's a quick FAQ:

a. ALL-CAPITAL letters. Lots of them. It's commonly accepted as "shouting" on the Net, but far be it for spammers to learn from twenty years of Internet conventions.

b. Misspellings. Look for mistakes of the junior high school variety.

c. Atrocious grammar. No high school diploma is required to send e-j-mail; maybe you already figured that out.

d. Total absence of any guarantee, warranty, or legal protection.

e. New in 1997: totally insincere paragraphs apologizing "if you didn't want to receive this mailing," and deceptive offers to remove your name by replying to the message. (You won't be removed. You'll just get more e-j- mail. Why? Your reply proves that yours is a valid address with a human using it; the unethical e-j- mailer will smile, lock on and open fire.)

f. Reply-to addresses that are already invalid by the time you receive, and respond to, the e-j-mail.

g. Believe it or not, I get e-j-mail with web URLs that aren't functional. Or for sites that don't work properly in a basic browser. Duh. They spent their money on spam-mail software, not on their product representation. It's generally agreed upon that e-j-mail isn't remotely ethical by conventional business standards. So ... why would you buy from an unethical business? So why would you even want to read it? And there's the clinch -- most of us don't even want to see it, but we have no choice, it's forced upon us by people like the NOIC's members.

Back Down

According to Newsbytes, NOIC has backed down. Previously, the NOIC wanted America Online "to sit at the table and talk to us," but I think that what NOIC president Joe Melle REALLY wanted was a lot of publicity. Melle's company, TSF Marketing ("the leader in Internet marketing"), is the founding member of the NOIC; TSF collects AOL e-mail addresses from chat rooms and other Internet locations used by AOL users. In "An Important Letter" posted to the NOIC's web site on January 2, 1998, Melle claimed that his group had received "thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls" supporting his group's goals. Supposedly, many of these messages came from AOL users "who agree with our goals and what we stand for."

Once we can stop marveling at the incredible audacity of Melle's spin control, you have to wonder what kind of logic the man is operating under. His group threatens to disclose private e-mail addresses as retaliation for perceived abuses by AOL to small Internet-based business. Three days later, the group recants, claiming a revelation that AOL users "are concerned" about NOIC's intended violation of private addresses. Of course, the NOIC's stated interest is in prohibiting all online service or ISP restrictions on e-j-mail, squarely placing the burden on the individual user to filter or kill unwanted messages. How cozy that all those thousands of AOL users would support such a shallow "solution." Does something smell fishy here?

Of course something smells fishy. The efforts of ISPs and administrators to provide anti- spam solutions are the DIRECT RESULTS of overwhelming consumer concern. Bearing that in mind, one has to wonder if Joe Melle has done more damage to the cause and reputation of commercial e- mail than anyone else in the past two years. Threatening such an public display of selfish disregard in the interest of making "the Internet a pleasant experience for everyone," and then claiming that the victims support his goals,... is a plainly bizarre delusion. I wager he's displaced Sanford Wallace (Cyber Promotions) as the Paul Joseph Goebbels of e-j-mail. I don't know if there's an end in sight for this e-j-mail nightmare. I can only hope that spamming our elected representatives, and complaining loudly to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), can awaken legislators to further regulating how these punks abuse the net. And isn't that what a New Year is all about, HOPE?


(C) Copyright 1997 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved. D.B. Spalding is an infopreneur and consultant based in Marin County, CA. Spalding was on the staff of The Harbinger from the late 1980's to early 1990's where he wrote and produced a weekly program on ambient, trance, and world music which was broadcasted on WHIL in 1993 called The HARBINGER HOUR: Music for the Turn of the Century. Many of his articles can be found on the World Wide Web at http://korova.com/


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