Sun, May 11, 2008 - Page 9 News List

An innocent beginning for e-vermin

By John Naughton  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

It’s that time of the century. Thursday last week was the 30th anniversary of spam (in the sense of junk electronic mail, not the foodstuff immortalized by Monty Python).

On May 1, 1978, Gary Thuerk, a go-getting marketing man employed by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) — then a leading mini-computer manufacturer based in Massachusetts, now a defunct trademark owned by Hewlett-Packard — thought that it would be a good idea to let Arpanet researchers on the west coast know that DEC had successfully incorporated the network’s protocols directly into the company’s DEC-20 an TOPS-20 operating systems (the Arpanet was the Pentagon-funded precursor to the Internet).

So Thuerk located a printed copy of Arpanet e-mail addresses, gave it to a secretary and requested that she dispatch the message using the SNDMSG e-mail program.

What happened next was described by the Internet pioneer Einar Stefferud: “The poor soul that typed in the announcement, also [in those days] had to type in all the addresses, and this person was not trained in the use of SNDMSG. So, she started typing addresses into the subject [field] which overflowed into the TO header, which overflowed into the CC header, and then into the body [of the message], and then the actual message was finally typed in ... So, lots of intended recipients did not receive it, including me.”

Once you got beyond the overflowed e-mail addresses, the message read, in part: “Digital will be giving a product presentation of the newest members of the DECsystem-20 family; the DECsystem-2020, 2020T, 2060, and 2060T. The DECsystem-20 family of computers has evolved from the Tenex operating system and the DECsystem-10 (PDP-10) computer architecture. Both the DECsystem-2060T and 2020T offer full Arpanet support under the Tops-20 operating system ... We invite you to come see the 2020 and hear about the DECsystem-20 family at the two product presentations we will be giving in California this month.”

Reactions to the message were pretty negative. For one thing, it contravened Arpanet rules that stipulated that the network could not be used for commercial purposes. And it was all in capitals, which in cyberspace constitutes shouting. According to Brad Templeton, who has chronicled this story from the beginning, one user from the University of Utah even complained that the spam had shut down his computer system.

INNOCENT

Looked at from the perspective of today, when my spam filter is reporting that it has blocked 5,700 messages in the last month, Thuerk’s unsolicited e-mail seems touchingly innocent. For one thing, it actually imparts some useful and interesting information.

If I had been an Arpanet researcher on the west coast in 1978, I would have been genuinely interested to learn that the network’s protocols had been incorporated in the operating systems of a major vendor. In that sense, it provides a stark contrast with the invitations to purchase penis-extending drugs, fake Rolexes and mining shares that nowadays clog my spam filter. And it’s sobering to see how such pernicious weeds can grow from such an innocuous beginning.

In a way, that’s the theme of an interesting book by Jonathan Zittrain that also came out on May 1. It has an innocuous title, The Future of the Internet, but a puzzling subtitle: And How to Stop It. Zittrain, who collects professorial chairs the way other people collect stamps (currently Oxford, Harvard and New York), is a distinguished cyber-scholar who fears that the proliferation of spam, malicious software, identity theft and other evils will generate unstoppable demands for regulation.

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