Broadcast: May 28, 2003
This is Shirley Griffith.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today, we tell about the growing problem of receiving unwanted sales messages on your computer’s electronic mail.
Twenty-five years ago, a man named Gary Thuerk worked for a company called Digital Equipment. One day he used his computer to send the same message to three-hundred-ninety-seven other computers. These computers all were linked to an electronic network called Arpanet. The Arpanet computer system was used to aid communication among scientists, researchers and government officials.
The message sent by Gary Thuerk told about the products his company was selling. Many of the people who got the message became angry. But several others used their computers to tell him they were interested in receiving information about Digital Equipment’s products. This was the very beginning of what computer users now call “spam.”
I suppose we should explain the word “spam.” SPAM is the name of a food product made by the Hormel Foods Corporation in Austin, Minnesota. SPAM is processed pork meat. It is sold in small blue cans in more than forty-one countries around the world. The Hormel Corporation has produced this popular food product since nineteen-thirty-seven. The word “SPAM” was the winning name in a contest the company held to name the new pork meat product.
Computer users who receive unwanted electronic information call this kind of electronic mail “spam.” Computer users named it spam because of a funny joke on a popular British television program called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
In one program, a group of people was sitting in an eating place that served only the processed meat called SPAM. Every time they tried to say something, another group of people would sing, very loudly, “SPAM—SPAM—SPAM, Wonderful SPAM.”
This interfered with people’s conversations in the same way that e-mail spam makes computer communication more difficult. Computer users began using the word to mean unwanted electronic information they did not ask for and did not want.
The Hormel Corporation has kept a sense of humor about this use of its product’s name. Company officials say they do not care. Hormel sells more than six-million cans of their pork meat every year.
The use of electronic spam to sell products has become a major problem for many computer users. A recent study showed that most computer users receive about one-hundred unwanted electronic mail messages or spam each week. Some people receive much more.
We even have a spam problem in Special English. We receive more than twenty e-mail messages from our listeners around the world each day. That is about six-hundred messages a month. We are happy to receive these messages.
However, we receive even more spam e-mail from around the world – about thirty-five messages each day. That is about one-thousand each month. Many of these messages are written in foreign languages. They are advertisements for products from other countries. We can remove much of the spam very quickly. However we must read some of these messages to make sure they are not messages from our listeners.
It would be difficult to count all of the spam sent across the Internet computer communications system each day. Some experts estimate that more than seven-thousand-million spam messages are sent around the world each day. Some experts say more than half of all e-mail sent is spam.
One company that deals with huge amounts of spam is America Online, a major Internet service provider in the United States and several other countries.
A-O-L says it uses special electronic programs to block spam that comes into its communications system. A-O-L says it blocks more than two-thousand-million spam e-mail messages each day. The A-O-L company is only one of many Internet service providers that face the same problem.
Internet service providers must buy larger and more powerful computers in an effort to deal with this huge amount of electronic mail. The cost is paid by everyone who uses a computer linked to the Internet.
Many companies send sales information or advertising on the Internet to people who are interested in receiving it. This information tries to influence people to buy almost any product or service possible. The products include shoes, clothing and food.
You may open your electronic mail and find information about how to buy medicine, cheap airline tickets, books, sexual products and, of course, computers and computer products. There may also be offers for investment deals, bank loans and special holidays.
Many companies who want to send a great deal of advertising might use the services of a “spammer.” A spammer is a person or company that uses computers to send out millions of copies of the same sales information. Spammers find e-mail addresses from Web sites, newsgroups and “chat rooms” where people send messages to each other.
Most spam is sent by companies who are trying to get you to buy their products. Some of these are honest companies that offer good products or services for a fair price. These companies can offer their products at a cheaper price than you might find in a store. However, much of the spam on the Internet is sent by criminals who are trying to sell products that do not exist or offer services they will not provide. They are only interested in stealing your money.
Some of these messages want you to buy special medicines that will improve your sexual performance. Or they want to give you something for free. When you answer their spam you find you are expected to send them money and receive a gift. One country in Africa has become famous for the number of criminals who try every known trick to separate people from their money.
Recently, American Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that more than one-hundred-thirty people have been arrested for criminal activity using the Internet.These criminals cheated people out of large amounts of money. Much of this money was taken from people who had answered a spam e-mail offering a product or a service. They paid for the product and received nothing.
Mister Ashcroft told reporters that these criminals are cheating the public out of millions of dollars each year. He also said the government is increasing its efforts to stop this kind of crime.
Spam has become a major problem for many computer users. Many angry people have begun to fight back. Among these are private citizens, Internet service provider companies and several state governments. The federal government is also considering anti-spam legislation.
The state of Virginia approved an anti-spam law in April. It is now illegal to send large amounts of spam to the citizens of Virginia without a correct return address. The new law says people can be sent to jail for as much as five years if they violate the law.
Many states have approved laws that say spam messages must include a way to tell the sender that the sales information is not wanted. This request usually tells the spammer not to send any more information to this address. Several states also have laws that say the spam must include a written statement saying the message is advertising. Or it must say the message advertises sexual products.
This permits the person who receives the spam to remove it immediately. Several companies have now begun selling computer programs that will block spam. One computer industry expert says these programs are successful. However, people who send spam are busy working to develop ways to defeat the anti-spamming programs.
Last week, the United States Federal Trade Commission told Congress there is no quick method to solve the problem of the huge amount of spam. There is no solution to the increased cost of spam. Trade Commission officials said solving the spam problem will take a cooperative effort involving new technology, new laws and action by private citizens.
This program was written by Paul Thompson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.