Father of Spam Speaks Out on His Legacy

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Back in 1978, when the thing we now all think of as annoying,unsolicited, inbox-clogging email was just the canned, spongy sandwichmeat, one man sent an email to 400 people, marketing his company's newproduct.

With that one fateful move, email spam was born.

Gary Thuerk, now in sales at computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co., sentout that original spam back when the Internet was called Arpanet, andresearchers and the military were the only ones using it. As a marketingmanager at the East Coast-based Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Thuerksent out the bulk email inviting West Coast techies to a demonstrationof Dec's new Decsystem-20.

When those early email users checked their inboxes, they discovered thisforeign-looking message with a cc list that took up so much room itspilled into the message's body. They simply had never seen a mass emailbefore.

Some seemed happy to receive this nifty notification. Some people cursedThuerk when their computers crashed. And the Defense CommunicationAgency scolded Thuerk, prohibited him from doing it again.

Despite the scolding, Thuerk says it was a great idea.

He saw these mass emails as a cheap, effective way to get a message to awhole lot of people. He's proud that he sent the first spam, comparinghis move with the Wright brothers' virgin airplane flight.

In the 26 years since then, spam has spiraled into a daunting digitalphenomenon. Analysts estimate that 2.5 billion pieces of spam arecirculated every day, accounting for nine out of 10 American emails.Spammers wreak havoc on Internet providers and corporate mail serverseveryday, forcing companies to hire technicians to do nothing but dealwith the deluge of spam.

Industry analyst firm Ferris Research estimates that in 2003, we wasted15 hours deleting email, compared to 2.2 hours in 2000. And MessageLabsInc., a managed email security firm based in New York, says spam nowmakes up more than 80 percent of all email being sent around the world.

The government even got in on the battle this past year, passing theCAN-Spam Act. In a legislative attempt to combat what is largely seen asa digital plague, the act applies civil and criminal penalties tooffenders.

In a one-on-one interview with Datamation, Thuerk says he doesn'tfeel any regret for starting spam. People don't throw cocktail weeniesat him when he walks into a party. Instead, he says they ask for hisautograph. Thuerk also talks about how successful that first spam was,how he feels about being known as the Father of Spam, and, if he had thechance, would he do it all over again.

Q: Who actually came up with the idea to mass email thesepeople?
I did. I looked at sending out invitations and calling all of thosepeople, but it was too hard to reach them by phone and too expensive andslow to print out invitations and send them. My project manager, CarlGartley, actually typed in all of the email addresses on and off for acouple of days.

Q: What kind of reaction did you get?
It was a mixed reaction. Some people I saw were glad to have theinformation... Other people said they didn't want the email and that itate up all of the free space on their computer. It used up all the diskspace on a professor's computer at the University of Utah.

Q: Was it effective?
It was very effective. We had a presentation in L.A. and in SiliconValley and a lot of people came to see the demonstration. It resulted in$10 million to $12 million in sales over the next several years.

Q: Were you encouraged by the results?
I was very encouraged, but the DCA [Defense Communications Agency] saidI wasn't allowed to do it again, and that they would take measures if Idid. Some people called and complained to my manager, Fred Wielham.

Q: What was the DCA's reasoning behind telling you not to do itagain?
They said Arpanet was considered a research vehicle, not to be used forcommercial uses. If someone had wanted to set up Amazon.com in thosedays, they wouldn't have been allowed. Everything changed when it becamepublic.

Q: Did you continue to send spam after that warning?
I sent out more information to a few more people, but only one person ata time. They were responses to inquiries, mostly. We didn't do any moremass mailing. The mass mail was sent to people we didn't know. We sentindividual emails to the people we did know.

Q: What did you call these mass emails back then?
It wasn't called spam. It was just unsolicited email.

Q: How do you know for sure that you sent the first spam?
Arpanet in its early development was mostly for research, notproductivity. Everything that went on back in those days was all keptonline, and there is readily available information that proves it.

Q: How do you feel about your title, The Father of Spam?
It's been a lot of fun. I say to people, ''Don't make me mad. I'm one ofthe original spammers!'' People always introduce me as the Father ofSpam. I never bring it up, but other people do.

Continue on to find out how people react to Thuerk when they find out who he is, and whether or not he would do it all over again.

Q: How do people react when they find out who you are?
You never really know what the reaction will be. Some people just ask,''Did you really do that?'' Other people want a picture or an autograph-- that kind of stuff. I only get a little bit of negative reaction andmostly I just read it in emails or on Web sites. I never really get anegative personal reaction.

Q: What do you think about spam today? Is it the plague of theInternet or a valid marketing tool?
It's a nuisance. It's like the advertising you get in the mail at home.The only difference is the government hasn't taxed it yet or tried toput a fee on it.
The public has grouped all kinds of email into the spam category...Specifically, spam is just unsolicited email. There is a differencebetween stuff that jumps up at you on Web site and spam... Spammers andphishers sure are creating a bad name for spam. There is all kinds ofgarbage being sent out. They are mass mailing just because they can.

Q: How much spam do you get?
I hardly get any spam at all. I don't count the junk email I get. I geta lot of that everyday. I don't get spam daily, though... I never fillout any personal information on Web sites because it all goes into somekind of marketing database.

Q: How does it make you feel that some people have stopped usingemail or don't use it as much because of the amount of spam they'regetting?
That's OK. I'm also restricted in my use. I think about it before I sendanything and before I use the Web.

Q: Do you still send spam?
Yes. I have a couple of distribution lists... one for tech news and alarger list for jokes and non-computer news. I send emails to thesegroups of people, but not to anyone that I don't know. These are groupsof people that expect to get it from me.

Q: What should be done to curb the amount of spam being senteveryday?
I don't expect it to go away soon. I expect the government to figure outa way to tax it. That is inevitable... Unless they find a technologicalway to limit the amount of email, they will have to tax it. Once theytax it, they will have control and will be able to regulate it.

Q: Do you think the CAN-Spam Act is effective?
I don't know if it will do what they say it will do. I haven't studiedit... but what happens with government stuff is that it gets tooconfusing and overburdening. It becomes its own guerilla.

Q: Do you ever think about the fact that laws have been created to curbspam, and that battling spam has grown into its own industry?
One guy I work with came up to me to thank me because his daughter got ajob [fighting spam] because of me. Stopping spam isn't that muchdifferent than stopping the security problems like worms and viruses.It's all related.

Q: Do you feel guilty for sending the first spam?
I never feel guilty. Someone would have done it... I am kind of like theWright brothers, flying the first airplane. It was a long time beforepeople took a commercial flight. I sent out the first mass email in 1978and it wasn't until 10 or 15 years later that people realized they cansend advertising over email for cheap.

Q: Would you do it all over again then?
Sure. The biggest complaint was not about the notification. It was thatthe distribution list went into the body of the email, so you saw halfof the names in the actual email. All we had to do to do it smarter wasto make up a list of smaller distribution lists. It was efficient andquick, and it was cheap.