Propagandaware

I had expected to tackle other topics, but I find I need to once again hit the subject of bulk e-mail. The reason for revisiting the issue is that I just received spam that creates a whole new subcategory of junk e-mail.

Perhaps I should start by defining my terms.

To begin with, there's bulk e-mail that is sent to you because you signed up somewhere. This constitutes solicited bulk e-mail, although the line between solicited and unsolicited is easily crossed by too-frequent postings and content that isn't quite what the recipient expected.

The big boys in the computer industry conduct this kind of e-mail distribution, and we don't mind. We actually want to know what Microsoft, Novell and others are doing.

Someone challenged my assertion last week that Microsoft distributes spam. His point was that if you get something from Microsoft, you must have signed up for it. Well, sure, but asking for one thing shouldn't result in receiving a score of other thinly related items. Moreover, it should be easy to get Microsoft to stop.

Several people wrote me stating they have received what they consider spam from Microsoft. A complaint raised by a couple of readers was that if they reply with a "remove" message, nothing happens. Microsoft isn't the only company with this problem.

I would suggest that any company sending out bulk e-mail -- no matter how responsibly it might handle the rest of its operation -- becomes a spammer the first time it fails to act on a remove request.

The opposite of solicited e-mail is, of course, unsolicited e-mail. Most spam campaigns use a buckshot approach: load up the e-mail cannon and blast away. But some spammers do attempt to target their messages.

Targeting assumes the recipients can be identified as suitable goals for the message's pitch. In the real world, targeting is a science. A direct mail company might take several lists of five or 10 million names each and analyse them a dozen ways.

A direct mail company will slice and dice lists until it whittles them down to, say, 250,000 names, to whom it expects to have a reasonable chance of selling a product or service. This kind of care is necessary when each item the company sends out costs at least 50 cents or more.

But on the Internet, targeted spam is rare because the costs are minute.

Now in all the above cases, the bulk e-mailer wants to sell you something -- get rich quick, visit my site, buy this product and so on. But this new form of spam I received isn't trying to sell you anything. The author doesn't want you to go to any Web site, respond to the message or do anything. That is, anything other than believe him.

This message starts out discussing the good old Year 2000 problem and predicting gloom, doom and a gnashing of teeth. It then goes on to discuss religion -- it is actually a dressed up religious tract. The author says that the return address won't work and that no more messages will be sent. This is the digital version of anonymous pamphleteering.

I predict this kind of agenda spreading will become an enormous source of spam and will be much harder to deal with than commercially oriented spam. I haven't found a good name for this stuff yet, but propagandaware, e-prop and e-puff are contenders.

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