A very unhappy birthday

Birthdays are generally times for celebration but spam e-mail, which turned 30 in May, definitely doesn’t fall into that category.

Spam, for both readers who don’t already know, is unsolicited advertising sent out as bulk e-mail messages. It is just the sort hell-born child that should have been strangled at birth and this year we can take time out to regret that it wasn’t.

It all began in 1978 when an employee of DEC sent out an e-mail to around 400 users of Arpanet, the forerunner of the Internet, inviting to attend a public viewing of a new computer that the company had produced.

There was a storm of protest at the time but the fact that sending out e-mail advertising is so cheap and easy, meant that unscrupulous advertisers were always going to use it, just as soon as enough people started using e-mail.

Spam got its name from a Monty Python sketch which took place in a restaurant where SPAM luncheon meat formed the basis of all the dishes on offer. In the sketch, a group of Vikings sang about the joys of SPAM, drowning out all other conversation.

The real SPAM is a pink luncheon meat made out of pork and ham by Hormel Foods, which is surely not amused by the fact that its product’s name has also become the name for such a undesirable Internet phenomenon. The company has asked that the name of its product be written in capital letters in an attempt to differentiate it from unwanted e-mail.

I had a bit of a scout around the spam.com website and found it to be wonderfully over the top, but with a good bit of info about the popular meat product. It was apparently first produced in 1937 and the company provided the military with 15 million cans of the stuff a week during WWII.

I have never tasted SPAM, to my knowledge, but it must surely leave a better aftertaste than its e-mail namesake. In an aside, have you ever noticed that you can’t buy decent canned meat products in this country? I know they exist but here it’s all mechanically-deboned poultry, and not even a decent can of bully beef available.

Anyway, back to e-mail spam, which is proving to be a real scourge when it comes to clogging up the Internet. E-mail has traditionally made up the bulk of all Internet traffic and, of the total number of messages, 80% are estimated to be spam which equates to about 100 billion unnecessary messages every day.

The volume of spam arriving in my Inbox was so high a few years ago that I made the switch to Gmail, which filters out 99% of the spam I receive, and puts it in a separate folder so that I’m not bothered by it. At the time of writing, I had 7519 spam messages in the folder which I had received in the last 30 days.

Spam filters do improve things for users but I think that there will have to be an alteration to the Internet e-mail system, preventing e-mail from being sent quite so quickly.

The addition of a slight delay between the sending of each message is not going to really affect people sending out small newsletters, for example, but it will curtail the activities of people sending out millions of spams every day.

Another idea could be to route all e-mail through control centres which could automatically detect when lots of messages are similar, as they are with adverts, and allow operators to inspect and delete them, if necessary.

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