The Usenet Death Penalty

By Jon Lebkowsky

"Spam" or junk email has become the bain of the Internet. While civil libertarians struggled to prevent various international government clampdowns on Internet content, to keep the net free and open, a clear channel for all to use, direct marketing entrepreneurs were clogging the network with gigabytes of unsolicited commercial email. Get-rich-quick Internet marketing books combined with cheap bulk emailers and the ease of harvesting email addresses from newsgroups and mailing lists created an epidemic. Ignorant or unscrupulous spammers brought down whole systems by forging return addresses so that bounced messages and flames were directed to other parties. Tracy Laquey Parker, who at the time owned the domain, checked her email one morning and found 5,000 messages, with several hundred more dropping into her mailbox as she sat stunned and tried to figure what had happened. The problem, she found, was that a bulk email sent to thousands, possibly even a million, recipients had the return address '' This nonexistent address was picked out of the air by the spammer, who was required to deal with absolutely none of the return email. (Parker and the ISP that was hosting her domain sued the spammer and won financial damages).

Some folks theorize that legislation is the best way to fix the spam problem. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) supports HR 1748, the Netizens Protection Act. "Sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, HR 1748 would extend the current legal prohibition against 'junk faxes' to include junk commercial e-mail. HR 1748 currently has 28 bipartisan co-sponsors." ( However some First Amendment activists are concerned over the free speech implications of this proposed legislation.

As the question of government intervention's debated, a coalition of Usenet newsgroup regulars has come up with another potential fix: impose the Usenet Death Penalty on Internet Service Providers that don't take effective action to shut down spammers within their user communities.

The following announcement was posted to Usenet administrative newsgroups:

Posted to and
Posted seperately to and news.admin.announce Mailed to

Despite repeated complaints about usenet spam originating from Netcom's news servers, Netcom US has not only not acted to solve the problem but has ignored the growing public outcry against this problem.

After several days of discussion of a potential UDP against Netcom US in a public forum they still remain silent, and the spam continues unabated.

Since it appears to be the corporate policy of Netcom US to ignore complaints of spam, and to ignore abuse of their systems by spammers, a full active Usenet Death Penalty of Netcom US will be instituted beginning at the close of business 17:00 PST, Friday, February 20, 1998.

This action shall remain in effect until such time as Netcom US dramatically reduces the amount of usenet spam originating from its servers, and publicly declares a solid anti spam policy which includes giving it's abuse department the authority to suspend or terminate accounts that have been determined to be the source of abuse.

It is our sincere hope that Netcom US will respond favourably to these issues before the implementation of a UDP is necessary.

It should be made clear that this action does not apply to Netcom Canada or Netcom UK or their customers.

If and when this action takes place, those sites that do not wish to participate can alias out the psuedosite "netcomusudp" to avoid the UDP cancel messages.

Any site wishing to avoid all UDP actions may alias out the psuedosite "udpcancel" to avoid all such messages.

Douglas Mackall

Usenet regulars are riled because they're apt to receive larger volumes of junk email. This is because bulk email software tends to accumulate addresses from messages posted to Usenet. The idea was to pressure Netcom and other ISPs by threatening to block them from effective use of a system that is a significant source of value. Usenet is a monolithic networked bulletin board system where users post and read messages on a huge variety of topics. Few ISPs obtain users solely by providing access to Usenet, but they would likely lose users if their ability to post to Usenet was constrained.

Fortunately for Netcom, the death penalty was cancelled. Quoted in Wired News, Mackall said "Netcom has responded quite favorably on the issue of Usenet abuse and [they] are continuing work on further anti- spam measures." Netcom is filtering spam at the source, and taking action to prevent spammers' abuse of open resources on the Internet.

This won't wipe out spam, but this successful use of the UDP threat will influence other ISPs to consider ways to prevent spam from originating on their sites. The tactic employed is debatable. According to Richard MacKinnon, who writes about online governance, we're not looking at a death penalty at all, but "more akin to a blockade or a seige." MacKinnon adds that "As an ungoverned space, Usenet is learning how to self-govern by way of coalitions which is the primary way actors move out of the state of nature into relative civilization." However MacKinnon notes "that the classification of what is spam and what it isn't is a dangerous and suspect activity" on free speech grounds. As with so many Internet governance issues, there are no easy answers.