By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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Tens of thousands of university students, network professionals, and other avowed enemies of the bulk electronic sales pitches known as "Spam" opened their e-mail boxes earlier this month to read: "anti-Spammers are cunts with no lives," and "KEEPSPAMMING! - f*ck the antispammers."
The pro-Spam messages were attached to phony advertisements for bulk-mailing software, facetiously attributed to Janet "Hotpussy" Reno, and referred recipients to the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the White House as having co-sponsored the mailing.
What followed was the Internet's version of a riot.
The mayhem raged from San Francisco to Miami, from London to Hawaii, and at many locations in between. Tens of thousands of anti-Spammers e-mailed angry responses to the Mississippi software firm mentioned in the advertisements, disabling the firm's equipment. They also forced a San Francisco, Spam-friendly Internet access provider to shut down the server of a client, a bulk-mailer in San Diego. The client's sin was to appear to have been the sender of the phony ads.
In Hawaii, flak from the assault struck an unsuspecting part-time programmer who was flooded with hateful anti-Spam messages; and in Miami, a mysterious angry phone caller accused an anti-Spam Web master of tampering with the caller's computer system.
"I guess he was an administrator of a Spam house," says David Ralph, the anti-Spammer who was the target of the anonymous harangue. The caller, a technician at the San Francisco Spam-friendly Internet access provider, thought Ralph had broken into his system and sent out a raft of rude Spams.
The chaos and vitriol served notice that the Spam battles that have lately been the talk of SOMA Web professionals -- in which idealistic anti-Spam vigilantes have attacked mass-marketing entrepreneurs -- have escalated into an outright guerrilla war.
The KEEPSPAMMING messages appear to be the work of a London anti-Spam provocateur seeking revenge against Spam software programmers, senders of Spam mail, and Internet access providers friendly to Spammers. At least, that's what the FBI is telling online executives who have aided a government investigation into the matter.
The San Francisco Internet service provider who was forced to shut down its client was indeed struck by a system somewhere in the U.K., says Steven Faulkner, president of Integrated Media Promotions Corporation (IMPC). IMPC is known to be an Internet service provider that caters to bulk e-mail Spammers. "Someone came into a server of ours from the U.K., and did what is called pirating a port," he explained last week. "I know the FBI is keen on catching these guys. We're just the latest in a series of victims," adds Rick Barker, owner of Atomic Mail, the San Diego Spam boutique and IMPC client whose system was deluged with anti-Spam messages last week.
Gerald Personen, the Cleveland FBI agent Faulkner, Barker, and Ralph say spoke to them about the investigation, did not return repeated calls for comment.
The British instigator apparently launched his attack to exact revenge on a Georgia software programmer, Forrest Dayton, who released a bulk-mailing program in February making it easy for rogue Spammers to illegally hijack other people's computers in order to send Spam. The original idea, Dayton says, was within the bounds of the law; he merely was seeking to create a way for Spammers to send e-mail from dozens of their own online accounts at the same time. But the software makes it just as easy to hijack the terminals of unsuspecting strangers and use their equipment to send Spam, he says.
Now, "instead of sending out 20,000 pieces of mail, they can send out hundreds of thousands," says Dayton.
Dayton speculates that someone used his software to hijack the British computer that is the suspected source of the Spammer-jamming messages. The hijacker used the British computer to send so many messages that it crashed, Day-ton says.
"It filled up his queue, and boom! It went down," Dayton says. In seeming confirmation of his scenario, Dayton received a boastful anonymous phone call from the British hacker last week.
The ensuing sabotage was the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between Spammers and Internet idealists who consider Spam a scourge.
In a separate incident a week ago hackers entered the computer system of Philadelphia bulk e-mailer Cyber Promotions, erasing internal files and leaving its Website inaccessible. Earlier this month a group of anti-Spam vigilantes blocked tens of thousands of messages distributed over the Internet service provider UUNET, which network professionals had charged with promoting Spam.
These guerrillas have found plenty of fans among Internet veterans, who see Spam as violating the very principles the Net was founded upon: cooperation, community, innovation. By using the old-fashioned sales tactic of mass mailing, these entrepreneurs force Internet subscribers to use expensive online time opening unsolicited junk mail messages. These messages slow down the actual functioning of the Internet; and companies that rely on the Internet lose thousands of hours of employee time opening message after message to weed out ads for get-rich-quick schemes, pornography, and the like.
"These Spammers amaze me, because they have no concept of the Internet. They don't know what it is all about," says Ralph, the Miami Web master, who works for a PR firm. "They try to legitimize what they do for a living, but it's obvious that it's not legitimate at all. Most people on the Web who have been on for a while know that this is something that is completely unethical."