The world's technological community conveniently ignored an anniversary it would rather have forgotten earlier this month.
According to Internet historian Brad Templeton, the first junk e-mail was sent on May 3, 1978, by a marketing executive at Digital Equipment Corp, a leading maker of microcomputers. The mass e-mail message to all Arpanet's subscribers on the West Coast caused untold controversy among users of the early Internet, which was known as the Arpanet.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century to a recent meeting of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The subject: Spam, the unflattering name given to the unsolicited e-mail messages that are clogging in-boxes worldwide and threatening the viability of the modern system of communications.
"E-mail is the killer app of the Internet, and spam is killing the killer app," said Commissioner Orson Swindle in a sound bite that summed up the perceived threat of the e-mail monster.
Swindle's comment could be dismissed as exaggeration -- were it not for the statistics, and the ubiquitous tales of woe from companies, Internet service providers and web users alike.
According to research firm Gartner, more than 260 billion e-mails were sent in the US last year. Each Internet user receives on average more than six junk e-mails a day, and more than US$2 of their monthly Internet bill is spent by service providers to combat spam.
According to figures from spam stopper Brightmail, junk e-mail now accounts for 42 percent of all e-mail traffic, up from 8 percent in 2001.
It would be bad enough if all this electronic avalanche just clogged up servers, transmission lines and in-boxes. But the messages themselves are usually bogus or fraudulent, according to an FTC study.
Reducing this torrent is one of the most challenging tasks facing the technology community.
The big problem is that the majority of junk mail messages are sent with false addresses and offer recipients no effective way of opting off the mailing lists, which are traded among spam operators for thousands of dollars.
Also, because the cost of sending mass e-mails is very low, spammers send millions of e-mails knowing that even if they get a response from 0.1 percent they can turn a profit.
E-mail filter technology that attempts to block out spam by identifying commonly used words provides only an incomplete solution.
Spammers continually figure out ways to circumvent new safeguards, while users complain that filters can also block genuine messages.
Other methods -- such as one that restricts e-mails only to those senders identified on the recipients' contacts lists -- are unlikely to be widely adopted because they defeat the very ease of communication that is one of the main attributes of e-mail.
Increasingly, it seems that legislation will be needed to crack down on the e-mail blight, but even this can provide only a partial solution.
US Senator Charles Schumer said at the FTC meeting that he planned to introduce a series of anti-spam bills, including a federal no-spam registry modelled after do-not-call telemarketing registries, while also enacting criminal and civil penalties for spammers who don't comply and implementing new anti-fraud measures.
Few believe these initiatives will rid the Internet of the e-mail parasites. Many even doubt they will have any success.