Spamming and Usenet Culture
Issue #18, January 1995
It started out simply enough. In January 1994, Clarence Thomas IV of Andrews University posted a message warning of Jesus' imminent return to all the newsgroups Andrews University receives — over six thousand.
To understand the reaction this provoked and the problems it caused requires an understanding of how Usenet works. Usenet was started for the exchange of information in an academic setting; people posted information which they felt would be a contribution, and in return others did the same. It is divided into newsgroups, each with a different subject. What Clarence Thomas did was try to force everyone to see his article and read his opinions. No one disputed that he should be able to present them; but to post them to every existing newsgroup was and is considered extremely destructive and rude.
The response to his posting is indicative of how Usenet operates. For a short while there was outrage across the net; then someone set up a script and removed all of the articles. A moderately long debate ensued, in which the general consensus was that it is OK to cancel 'spams' like that, on the basis of the fact that they are spams, but not if it is because of content. The term 'spam' comes from the Monty Python skit in which the word spam gradually takes over the menu; in this case, it means a message which is posted many times, in one or more newsgroups or mailing lists, where it interferes with the normal discussion.
Spams threaten both the base and the superstructure of Usenet. If, as many Usenet news administrators fear, spams were to continue and become more prevalent, Usenet would probably still exist in some form; but instead of being a place people can go to communicate with others, and get useful information, it might become merely an advertising board. If that happened, most sites would probably stop carrying Usenet, since spams take up a large amount of space. As an example, Clarence Thomas' spam was 5-6kbytes for each message; with 3000 copies, that's over 30 megs of each server. Thirty megs isn't so bad, but add more spams and it becomes a problem; a few sites have crashed occasionally on account of spams. Aside from the problem of physical storage, the majority of the current users would stop reading Usenet. Any system like Usenet, which gives freedom and a large degree of trust to its users, runs the risk of attracting exploitation; but a system of hard rules runs a different risk, that of stifling free discussion.
Base and Bandwidth
What we call Usenet was originally Usenet News, one of many services available to people who connected to Usenet, a net of computers connected primarily via phone lines. Usenet is a series of articles, divided into newsgroups, of which there are many thousands. It is now transmitted within computer networks, primarily the Internet (popularized as the 'Information Superhighway'). The messages which make up Usenet are passed from one computer to the next; there is no 'central' computer. Each computer trusts the other computers to which it is connected not to alter messages and not to send messages with falsified or false information in the header (the section which is the domain of the programs which read and transmit the articles).
For a user with root access and a little knowledge of how the news and network programs work, it is simple to forge articles, or send an article from a falsified address. Since each site an article passes through leaves its name in the header, it is possible to trace forgeries, but it can be very difficult. After an article has been posted to Usenet, it's possible for the user who posted it to cancel it. The cancel displaces and erases the original article, and then prevents each site which receives the cancel from receiving the article. Forged cancels are simply cancels sent by someone other than the user (or his/her admin) who posted the article, but which claim to be from that poster. Spams are generally removed with scripts or programs which create forged cancels.
If the purpose of Usenet is a useful exchange of information, then one aspect of its base is the physical resources required to maintain it: the disks which hold the information and the network along which it passes. It is important to understand that even though cyberspace is billed as a kind of abstraction, separate from material reality, it can't exist without those physical resources. Another aspect is bandwidth, by which people often mean several things: bandwidth is the space of Usenet, but it's also used to represent the time required to read a given post in a newsgroup. In this second sense, posters will also talk about the signal/noise ratio, i.e. the amount of useful information (posts they wanted to read) versus the amount of noise (posts they didn't, at least not in that newsgroup).
Creating Newsgroups and Other Aspects of the Superstructure
The superstructure is most apparent when one looks at the development of Usenet. It started very small; as it grew, and each newsgroup became more crowded, more were created in order to address more specific interests. These newsgroups are named in a hierarchical manner so that, for example, with 'rec.org.sca' the first part indicates that the newsgroup is part of the recreation hierarchy, Rec.*, the second indicates that it is about an organization, thus rec.org, and the third part tells which organization, the SCA. In each newsgroup, posters are expected to write 'on charter,' i.e. within the scope of the discussion for which the group was created — this is one aspect of netiquette, posting in the appropriate place(s).
Of course, it's not possible to make a hard and fast definition as to what places are appropriate, so normally posters can post whatever they want to a newsgroup, regardless of its relevancy. If an article is posted to too many newsgroups (~50), it will probably be canceled as spam; but otherwise, the worst thing that will happen is that individual users will flame the poster. Newsgroups like this, where anyone can post, are called unmoderated newsgroups. Often this system works, and the discussion is worthwhile to the readers; but when it doesn't, they have the option of trying create a new newsgroup, one which is moderated. Moderated newsgroups require approval of the moderator for an article to be sent. When one posts to a moderated newsgroup, the software sends the article to one or more people designated as moderators. They approve it if they think it is appropriate or worth posting. It is possible to remove and replace moderators — it's just extremely difficult, and nearly never happens, except when they are willing.
As the net expands, more and more newsgroups need to be created. In creating a newsgroup, the real issue isn't simply to have it exist somewhere; any administrator can create a newsgroup which exists only on his/her site, and anyone can send out the messages which are used to create or remove groups. The difficulty comes in trying to convince a significant number of administrators to carry the group. It is because of that difficulty that the newsgroups News.groups and Alt.config were created to discuss the creation of groups, and to vote on them. Approval in those groups of a given group doesn't guarantee that everyone will carry it, but many sites will.
The part of the net which I consider to be most 'governmental' — hence superstructural — is the News.admin.* hierarchy. Within it, system administrators, programmers, and others who are knowledgeable about Usenet/Unix/Internet/etc. work on administrative matters. In News.admin.misc and Alt.current-events.net-abuse the spamming issue has been talked about, and methods of dealing with it are, to a large degree, spoken about there. Other agreements are decided within the hierarchy. For example, this hierarchy generated Usenets Son of RFD 1036, the current guide on software protocols and how Usenet messages should be formatted and what they should include. Thus, the news.admin hierarchy is an integral part of Usenets superstructure, especially in terms of programming.
There is an ideology associated with Usenet, as is apparent in Usenet 'Netiquette.' Netiquette (etiquette on the net) is described in many places, but in particular News.newusers.answers has a FAQ (answers to Frequently Asked Questions) about it. That ideology could be summed up as poster named Stephen Samuel did in News.admin.misc: 'the unwritten (and often unrecognized) rule of the net: contribute more than you take out of it.' This ideology is clearly at odds with the ideology of capitalism, and many Usenetters feel it is all that has allowed Usenet to survive as it is.
Forge-cancels are very atypical of how violations of netiquette, or the ideology described above, are dealt with. Unlike spams, most violations are on a small scale and affect only the readers of the group in which they occur. This atypicality makes more sense when one realizes that aside from the fear that others would follow suit (as advertisers, 'researchers,' and others did) and spam, spams attack the ideology on which Usenet is based — they represent a person who seems to be taking away from the net and giving back nothing in return.
This is the underlying reason for the fury that spams generate these days — sufficient so that people welcome 'retroactive moderation,' i.e. forge-cancels. Several years back, a scheme for retroactive moderation was attempted, and is still spoken of in tones of vague horror; apparently it started canceling its own cancels. And I'll admit that I find it problematic that in order to protect free speech, we're restricting it by saying that a person can post whatever he wants, only so long as he doesn't post it too many times or in too many different places.
Where Are We Going With This?
But one is tempted to ask — of what use is the 'governmental structure' in news.groups and news.admin.* if it doesn't stop the vast majority of violations of netiquette? Most administrators are interested in giving the benefit of the doubt about a given article (which may violate netiquette) because they value freedom of speech. Freedom of speech isn't a right on Usenet, but it is held sancrosant, because it is seen as critical to the exchange of information. If there is sufficient interest, just about any group can be created (if only in the Alt.* hierarchy). If administrators — or anyone — were to pass judgment on what is a violation of netiquette, or what simply shouldn't be posted, freedom of speech would go and with it much of the value of Usenet as a place to exchange information.
The cancellation of spams is seen as acceptable because, if it is determined that a set of postings constitute a spam, their subject becomes irrelevant. The feeling up to this point has always been that those who violate netiquette are mostly 'Clueless Newbies(tm)' and thus will eventually stop being clueless and become 'good net.citizens.' If they do not become good net. citizens, people will gradually start to ignore what they have to say, or flame them into oblivion; public opinion has a strong effect on most people. If people cause too much of a disturbance on a certain group, and useful discussion can't take place, a moderated group can be created. In the past, before spams and cancellations began, these forms of regulation were regarded as sufficient, and canceling another person's article was considered utterly inappropriate. Now, in that limited sense, cancellation is widely accepted; and some people want more, or think it inevitable and necessary as the Internet and Usenet become more mainstream.
Usenet doesn't have a government in the ordinary sense; administrators run their own sites, and follow agreements — like Son of RFD 1036. Without cooperation it would be impossible to run a network like Usenet, which, with its freedom, requires trust and creates the possibility of abuse. Nonetheless, administrators not forced to follow any set of rules. What might happen, if they refused to cooperate with other sites, is that eventually other parts of the net would start to ignore anything from them, and if they caused enough problems, they'd lose their feed(s) (connection to the net). Perhaps they could convince someone else to give them a feed; perhaps not. It would depend on how other sites saw them; however, even though this appears to have a long-term effect, it hasn't often been effective in stopping violators immediately. But as an example, Canter and Siegel, the pair who have repeatedly and unrepentantly spammed the net (and, it should be added, posted directly to moderated newsgroups — a glaring violation of netiquette and trust) — who have their own site, since they went into the cyberspace advertising business (cybersell.com) — lost their Usenet feed for repeatedly breaking their agreement with their provider by spamming; and it seems unlikely that they can get another feed elsewhere.
Thus Usenet generally governs itself in a communal way, with no site able to force other sites to do something. It may be possible to convince or coerce them to do it, but because Usenet exists in the real world, large businesses — such as UUNet — have more influence and can ignore others with much more impunity. The system is not always effective. For example, Sedar Argic/zumabot kept his feed, at UUNet after losing accounts elsewhere, for a long time while he was responding in certain newsgroups to any post containing the word 'turkey' with an account of atrocities committed by the Armenians against the Turks. He disappeared mysteriously, while Jon Noring was circulating a petition to UUNet to end Sedar Argic's feed. But on the whole the system has allowed people and administrators to govern themselves.
However, there are people who want to be a government for Usenet, for example those running the Judges-L list (JUDGES-L@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu). The Judges-L list was created when it started to look like spamming was going to become more common, but — according to its FAQ — addresses spams only incidentally, and primarily concerns itself with libel, copyright violation, and forgeries. There is always talk floating around of the cabal which runs Usenet, or tries. That talk seems to have some (small) reality in this case. The owners of the list want people to submit cases to them for arbitration — for example, for libel or inappropriateness. A subscriber to the Judges-L mailing list, Mitchell Golden, posted to News.admin.misc that the lists creator, David Stodolsky[,] thinks Judges-L is the judicial branch of the Usenet government, while the newsgroup news.admin.policy is the legislative branch, in explaining the threat he, and some other subscribers, see in the list or what it represents. The 'judges' (of which only some of the people on the list are 'qualified' to be, according to the owners and their FAQ) will then pass judgment and cancel the article if it is appropriate.
There are people who support this ideal, at least in theory, though very few would support the specific people running the list right now. And a few people have canceled articles simply because they didn't like the content and didn't think it was contributing to the discussion. It seems unlikely that these people will have any serious effect — Usenet is too large to police reasonably — but their existence is symptomatic of the fact that many think people will only behave if there is some authority/organization watching them and disciplining them.
Also, the issue of whether or not a certain post is spam has become more complex as spammers refine their methods: It is possible to create a program which will 'mail merge' a textfile into a template, to create articles which are all distinct but contain some advertising blurb, and post them separately. Clearly such programs could be used for advertising, and while they might avoid a superficial description of spam, they would generally not contribute anything to the discussion. If advertisers can do this, some will — if it will be profitable, at least. So more and more judgment calls are needed to determine if a set of posts is spam. In actuality, spams are less threatening than most people see them — so far. And there are places for businesses on Usenet; there is an entire hierarchy devoted to advertising, Biz.*, and there are other newsgroups where it would be appropriate, if done in the right way. But the fear many feel is that if advertisers see Usenet as a potential market, they'll flood it with advertisements, and it will die an unpleasant death.
I (and others) sometimes wonder if the injunction against spamming isn't the perfect way to get Usenetters to accept censorship: there has always been a fear of the Imminent Death of the Net(tm) (for many and varied reasons). And everyone wants to be the one who stops that threat, or its most recent incarnation. The people who administer Usenet are generally very intelligent, and have mostly avoided being a mob. But Usenet has always been a kind of intellectual elite, and somewhat snobbish about it. Right now, Usenet is expanding at an incredible rate, and it has become much less technically demanding to participate in (and thus less elite). The people who join don't initially know about its history or culture; so there is some culture shock for both the newcomers and the old-timers.
Many advertisers will be willing to use methods which aren't destructive or disruptive if the situation is explained to them rationally. As examples, on misc.entrepreneurs, this tactic didn't work or was used too late, and misc.entrepreneurs.moderated was created. But on alt.business.multi-level, a group of about five people have been responding to all advertisements with a letter to the author and the author's administrator, explaining what was wrong with the article and including a copy of the charter; this has been reasonably successful in keeping discussion alive there.
In one sense, Usenet is all about a utopian society, built and constantly recreated by a community of interested people. It is huge, and will go on about its business regardless of the individual users within it. But we can have some effect, by learning about Usenet and its culture and by teaching others — by example or by answering questions or directing people to someone who can answer questions. This applies to everyone involved in the Net, from businesses to Clueless Newbies(tm). In addition, we can take part in the newsgroups (News.groups and News.admin.misc would be decent places to start reading and participating) which are part of the superstructure of the net, and in doing so influence it. Usenet will go on, however, either way; the question is only what it will become, and what purpose it will serve.
Ed Korthof is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, majoring in mathematics. He likes computers, reading, the SCA, snowboarding, and set theory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.