Here is a breakdown of my unwanted email for September 30, 2003.
Meanwhile, the messages I got today which were actually wanted--some mail from low-traffic lists to which I subscribe and mail from friends and readers--is an increasingly small proportion, never more than one fourth or one fifth, of the mail I receive.
A few weeks ago the situation was even worse. On top of the ordinary spam like the messages I have just described, I was receiving an additional few score virus messages and bounces of viruses sent in my name to inactive email accounts. This has quieted down as the latest worldwide virus epidemic has flared out, but the next one will certainly deluge my mailbox again.
Admittedly, my computer situation is far below optimal. I work on two old laptops running Windows 95, each of which is five to seven years old. The web-based virus protection I purchased was actually murdered by a virus which opened itself (I never click on attachments from people I don't know and am very well-attuned to suspicious messages of the "see attached file for details" ilk) and I haven't been able to reinstall it. My approach to virus protection now is to avoid reading mail using any Microsoft product, hence my use of Pine.
Nor do I have any anti-spam products installed. My ISP keeps the availability of such products on their service a well-guarded secret. Since the flooding of my mailbox with unwanted messages has actually led them to suspend my account three times (something they do when your storage exceeds 5 megs) I asked if they could not help defend me against spam and they offered two solutions. In one, suspected spam is stored to a separate folder for my review (which defeats the purpose, as it is not saving me any time). In the other approach, suspected spam is automatically deleted, which leaves me queasy with the knowledge that a certain number of valid messages will be deleted. As a result of these concerns, I haven't asked them to enable the protection.
I got my first email account in 1984. (An interviewer once said, "Wow, you're an old-timer," and I answered that I didn't feel like one, because I had a lot of friends back then who had been online since 1978.) It was a Compuserve account; I would read articles in trade pubs like Computerworld about this Internet thing which back then had about 75,000 users worldwide, all techies, and which sounded like it was far too complicated for me to use.
Compuserve had a strong policy against unsolicited mail and there was remarkably little of it, maybe a few pieces a month. Similarly, the sysops (system operators) of the Compuserve forums would aggressively punish any user who posted irrelevant commercial messages.
I started using the Internet sometime around 1990 and I remember the first major spam debate, when a small immigration law firm posted a message to every Internet newsgroup, offering their visa services. Spam was irritating even back then, but it was a relatively small percentage of the mail I received, was easily deleted, and did not contain graphics. I used to think that the people who got really worked up about spam were over-reacting. I don't think so any more.
In short, my email is much less useful to me as a tool than it was nineteen years ago, when I joined Compuserve, or thirteen years ago, when I first went onto the Net. Today, the Internet feels rather like a once-beautiful and pristine body of water into which you can no longer stick your foot without stepping on a syringe, a used condom or a dead fish.
I am still mindful that spam is easily deleted, especially in Pine. I am a grown-up and do not regard myself as emotionally fragile, so no matter how distasteful, I do not expect to be ruined by subject lines about penis size, woman-on-animal sex, etc. (or even the content of the occasional message I am tricked into opening because it has an innocuous subject line that just might signal mail from a reader, such as "Hello").
My problem is with the volume. It is very tiresome to have to go through twenty or more messages looking for the one you actually want. The minor irritation factor of messages on distasteful and unwanted subjects becomes a major one as the messages multiply. One penis size message a day is negligible; ten of them are annoying.
The way the African scam artists are stepping on one another is an interesting study in what has happened to the Internet. Even the most naive and greedy person, the perfect "mark" for this kind of con, is likely to suspect there is something wrong when five or more strangers a day start contacting him offering to wire millions of dollars to his account. The sheer volume of African con mail going out makes it much less likely that any particular mark will respond. I am sure the con artists would agree that these are hard times and that they are all undercutting each other, with more artists chasing a limited pool of customers every day. Perhaps the scammers need a trade association and some way of regulating how many artists can hit the same email address with a similar story (engineer, banker or politician dies leaving millions in unclaimed account which will be stolen by corrupt local officials if you don't assist in transferring the funds out of the country).
Spam annoys me, but viruses hurt me. Ironically, my computer got infected because my ISP wasn't protecting me against spam. After being offline for a few days, I had more than four hundred messages waiting. My ISP suspended me (it was the first time this had happened.) After some phone calls they re-enabled my account and I foolishly used Microsoft Outlook Express to download my messages, figuring I would go through them offline. I had already been using Pine for two years but didn't want to sit online for the hours I thought it would take to prune my mailbox and risk being suspended again. As Office downloaded the fifth or sixth message in line, I saw a program start to run itself, and a moment later the words "UR my new best friend" were dancing on my screen. This was, if I remember correctly, W32 Elkern; in any event, it was a virus out of India which emailed itself to everyone in your address book and then used your Internet connection for a denial-of-service attack on the Pakistani government web site, hitting it once a second. Worst of all, it killed the McAfee virus software.
Though after some hours of downloading programs created for the purpose (the first one didn't work) I succeeded in deleting the virus from my disk, that computer has never recovered; it is much slower than before, almost to the point of being unusable.
There are other consequences. The virus attacked my reputation on the Net, by mailing itself to people with whom I had previously corresponded, who may no longer trust messages they receive from me. Other viruses, then and later, simply scooped my email address out of someone else's mailbook and used it in the "From" line; over the past two years I have received thousands of bounces of viruses I knew had not originated from my computer, because I was virus-free at the time and the recipients were not in my mailbox.
The end result of this kind of thing is that reputation and trust have become almost meaningless in the world of email. It is very difficult to know for certain, without the use of sophisticated solutions that most of us don't have the means, knowledge or time to adopt, that a message purporting to be from me is actually from me. Email, which in 1984 seemed like a means of communication infinitely superior to the telephone (rapid and avoids "telephone tag") now seems to be much worse. And since spoofed spam or virus messages are going out in my name every day, I don't really have the opportunity to rebuild that trust except by using something like PGP which will allow me to digitally sign messages--and then corresponding only with others who use it.
There is a special ignominy for Microsoft, the huge, lazy monopoly which for years on end has insisted on releasing software with gaping security holes in it. Who thought it was a good idea to allow the opening of an email message to launch a script, let alone download a file? Why wasn't this emphatically stopped years ago? Contrast the Mac, which has never been susceptible to viruses; it is apparently not rocket science to build software which isn't vulnerable. Microsoft doesn't seem to have really tried; since it dominates the market it seems to have no incentive to do better.
I have several mailing lists which I use to alert readers of new issues of the Spectacle, free speech developments and the occurrence of newsworthy events involving me or the Spectacle. I run these on the humorously but now inapropriately named "Spam server," which is free software provided by Hank Greenspun. Users add and delete themselves via a link that I provide. The software unfortunately does not include the feature now standard in commercial products of automatically emailing new subscribers asking them to confirm their membership in the list. Every time someone signs up for one of my lists, I receive an email alerting me of their name, email address and the list to which they subscribed. I realized that I was beginning to see a lot of additions of people who entered an obscenity for their name, or a sobriquet like "spammer". I was slow on the uptake but finally realized that someone with way too much time on their hands was using my lists (and presumably many others as well) as an extremely attenuated form of revenge on people he perceived to be spammers or who had otherwise annoyed him. Thus my lists too had become polluted and unreliable; against my will someone had turned me into a spammer, sending unwelcome mail to people who never signed up for it. I tried going through the lists and deleting obviously fake entries, but it wasn't always obvious whether an entry was real and completing the job would have taken more hours than I was willing to undertake. So my lists too had become polluted and harmful to my reputation.
The common theme here is that the dream we believed for some years in the '90's--that the Internet would be a masterfully self-regulating system--did not come to pass. As in any area of human endeavor, the lowest common denominator has veto power over how the entire system runs, over the culture and the comfort level as experienced by everyone else. As Japan discovered in a horrendous incident last year, the subway runs on the assumption that men with cans of gasoline will not attempt to set fire to crowded trains; or as we discovered on September 11, our society similarly is based on a belief that in general suicidal men with flight training will not attempt to fly large planes into skyscrapers. Once these assumptions turn out not to true, the problems of recalibrating society become immense. As the IRA told Margaret Thatcher after an unsuccessful assassination attempt: "We only need to be lucky once; you need to be lucky every time." The Second Law of Thermodynamics favors the chaotic and unmanageable over the orderly.
This is the same phenomenon which, writ small, has destroyed every unmoderated mailing list I ever joined. Each originally starts out as a fascinating place to discuss computer law, freedom of speech, etc. but ends up a forum for a few fringe people who enjoy trading personal insults about largely irrelevant political issues. Meanwhile, all the interesting and knowledgeable people have unsubscribed.
Not long ago, I parked my car with one window wide open, and not surprisingly, someone crawled into my car overnight and stole the quarters I kept for parking and some CD's. The fact that I was careless did not make his action legal; if a cop had passed by, or I had caught him at it, there would have been consequences. The problem is that the person who crawls into my computer may live in Korea or Finland and may be able to cover his traces so well that he is very difficult to find. This doesn't make his actions legitimate, and though Microsoft bears significant blame for making shoddy software, the ultimate responsibility for the crime falls on the criminal. For now it seems like the selfish, immature and software-violent have triumphed, as it is hard to see what consistent, toothed, international law enforcement arm will be able to help protect us against unwanted and hurtful mail. Merely national schemes of enforcement, good as far as they go, will not shield us against teenagers in China or Brazil. In the meantime, the Internet, dominated as it is by the selfish, greedy and obnoxious, is a good deal less interesting to me.
In case there is any doubt, nothing I have said is meant to support the third-party filtering of web content, which notoriously blocks substantial amounts of benevolent material while allowing the bad stuff through. I search for content; email comes looking for me. This makes a tremendous difference when it comes to analyzing issues of privacy, comfort, and culture.