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E-mail With. . . Spammers

The two lawyers who angered the Internet community when they posted ads on various USENETs tell why they did it.

On April 12, 1994, two lawyers inserted an advertisement on USENET groups -- the electronic bulletin boards that are the heart and soul of the Internet and that millions of people turn to for advice, debate, and social interaction.

The posting of ads has always been heavily frowned upon by most USENET users, but Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel's missive -- an offer to help immigrants apply for a permanent-residence green card for a fee of $100 -- was regarded as a virtual call to arms. The main offense: the lawyers had "spammed" the Internet. That is, they had used a software program to methodically insert their generally unwelcome message on 6,000 of the 9,000 USENET "newsgroups," so that almost everywhere Internet users turned that day they ran into the ad.

Canter and Siegel, who are married, quickly found themselves the target of the most vicious and widespread "flaming" campaign in the history of the Internet. Angry E-mail swamped the computers of their Internet-access provider; hate faxes, some of them racist or threatening, poured into their offices; software programs known as "cancelbots" were unleashed to hunt down and delete the ads.

How chastised did the lawyers feel? They turned around and wrote a book -- How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway (HarperCollins, 1994) -- urging other businesses and professionals to do exactly what they had done. They also founded a consultancy called Cybersell to help companies get started.

Inc. Technology editor David Freedman swapped E-mail with the legal spammers for several weeks. Here are some excerpts.

From: David Freedman david_freedman@incmag.com Congratulations on your best-seller. At what stage of your run-in with the on-line world did it occur to you to write a book about selling on the Internet?

From: Laurence A. Canter lcanter@cyber.sell.com We had been wanting to write a book about marketing for several years, but it took the green-card incident to show us the light. The Internet in general, and USENET in particular, was such an unbelievable and largely untapped resource for marketing just about anything that we simply couldn't remain quiet.

david_freedman@incmag.com I have to ask you the same sort of question that Coca-Cola was asked after the New Coke debacle boosted sales of Coke Classic. Did you even remotely imagine ahead of time that your green-card posting might bring you the sort of notoriety that it did? As you may know, Coca-Cola's answer was, We weren't that stupid, and we weren't that smart. You must have at least been aware that there would be a certain amount of flaming in response. Did you not care, did you feel it was a cost of doing business on the Internet, or did you even welcome it?

lcanter@cyber.sell.com Well, Internet advertising is probably not for the faint of heart, but then neither is success. We were aware of the controversy, of course, since we had done several smaller postings before that eventful night of April 12 -- which we believe will go down in history as the date the Internet became truly commercial.

In the end, the results speak for themselves. The project was successful. The number of people wanting our information was overwhelming, and we ended up with 1,004 paying clients. The publicity was greater than we had anticipated, however, and some have accused us of staging the entire event for PR purposes. On that count, I'd agree with Coca-Cola.

From: Martha S. Siegel msiegel@cyber.sell.com There's too much contention in the world today already. It's a shame conflicts can't be settled peacefully. If the worst thing anyone can say about me is that I put an ad on the Internet, then I'd say that speaks well for my standards of behavior. We weren't about to let a bunch of loudmouthed bullies stop us from doing something perfectly legal and ethical. I don't think it was Coca-Cola. It was probably more Davy Crockett -- "Be sure you're right; then go ahead."

david_freedman@incmag.com Martha, you sound as if you're sensitive to the fact that you guys infuriated a lot of people, and your insistence on pushing this form of advertising may be more a reaction to the obnoxiousness and self-righteousness of the flamers than a deep conviction that it's the right thing to do. Do you two sometimes wonder if the ultimate result of your having pushed the envelope in Internet advertising won't be the pioneering of a new, effective form of small-business advertising but rather the introduction of formal restrictions on broadcast advertising on the Internet?

msiegel@cyber.sell.com As to the first part of your question, congratulations, you've just proved you're a sexist -- the man is making a reasoned business decision, and the woman is reacting emotionally. Be assured that we speak with one voice on this matter. We do what we do because it's good business, and that's all. I don't know how you spend your days, but I don't have time to waste proving points to unruly college kids and assorted zealots. I have a company to run.

As to part two of your question, there's no doubt that we've pioneered a new form of business advertising, and there's no question that it is effective, but if formal constraints arise to control electronic vandals, so much the better.

One thing that also needs to be strongly emphasized about the need for regulation is the possibility of hidden agendas. After all, when an attack is made on a business, maybe it's a Netter with a heartfelt conviction that advertising doesn't belong on the Internet. Then again, maybe it's a competitor trying to put another competitor out of business. When I see members of the Bolt Beranek and Newman consulting firm publicly criticizing us, I can't help but wonder which of our competitors put them up to it, which one of their clients would benefit from seeing us gone.

The same is true when a company like MecklerMedia, our direct competitor, slams us editorially in their magazines. When CompuServe forbids USENET advertising of any kind over its network, is it doing it out of respect for the sanctity of the Internet or because it would prefer to have the advertising revenues accrue to them? Just like me, these people aren't acting on emotion. A heavy-duty business agenda is behind a lot of what's going on. We need formal control to ensure as much as possible that everyone plays fair.

david_freedman@incmag.com I don't see why you need to be a sexist to regard statements like "there's too much contention in the world today already" as the product of sensitivity. But let's not get sidetracked.

Assuming more and more companies take your advice and advertise on the Internet, which seems inevitable, do you think the Internet will have to change to accommodate an explosion of advertising?

msiegel@cyber.sell.com I can't imagine that people will find a way to relegate advertising to a separate area. It hasn't happened that way in any other medium, and it won't happen here. If there is ever a nonadvertising zone, it will be the less populated corner of the Internet, and the free advertising areas will be by far the most popular. You have only to look at the popularity of public-access cable TV or PBS versus the commercial channels to see what will happen on the Internet.

Undoubtedly, many companies see a cash cow in the Internet and are trying to co-opt it with the idea of charging those who will come after. When you scratch the surface of the furor surrounding our advertising, that's really what it's all about. Those who were already poised to take over the Internet weren't counting on our coming in and challenging their self-proclaimed supremacy. We've predicted in our book that the opportunities won't always be as low cost as they are now. That's why we've urged our readers to move immediately to involve themselves with the Internet.

david_freedman@incmag.com Can Internet advertising help level the playing field between large and small companies, or are there ways that large companies can press their advantages on the Internet?

lcanter@cyber.sell.com The most exciting thing about Internet advertising is the ability it gives smaller businesses to compete effectively. And I do believe the larger companies are unhappy about that. Probably, much of the push to use only Web sites and "passive" methods of advertising comes from the realization that the cost of entry is greater, making it more difficult for the small business.

david_freedman@incmag.com Why do you believe USENET, rather than the Web, is the way to go for small-business advertising? Cost is one reason. Is there another? For people who don't have the stomach to put up with all the flaming, do you have any tips for treading more lightly than you guys did? Or do you feel it's only worth it to go whole hog and get your message out in a no-nonsense way anywhere and everywhere?

lcanter@cyber.sell.com At the moment, there is little evidence that Web advertising by itself is particularly effective. One of the main problems, of course, is that few people have full Web access. Without question, USENET sales are higher. The Web does offer more exciting possibilities, of course, and the environment is changing daily. As more people are able to access the Web graphically, as communication lines improve so that the download time of graphics or multimedia comes down to something reasonable, my answer may change. Probably the Web is the direction we'll all take in the future. At the moment, however, USENET seems to be more effective. And, of course, not only is it more expensive and technically involved to put up a Web server, but you are also faced with the problem of how others will find you. That is not a problem with USENET.

We haven't necessarily advocated sending the message out "everywhere," though that was certainly successful with the green-card lottery. For the Cybersell clients, we have been limiting our postings to groups of general interest, those designated as "misc," those called "forsale" and "marketplace," and those specifically related to the subject at hand. Typically, this totals between 200 and 300 groups. The USENET is best used to give a short message directing the reader to go elsewhere for more information, such as a Web site.

david_freedman@incmag.com What's your take on "cancelbots"? Obnoxious, illegal as an infringement of free speech, or all's fair in love and war?

msiegel@cyber.sell.com Obnoxious is not the real issue with cancelbots. Infringement of speech and illegal activities are. With respect to legality, cancelbots used against advertising are actionable in civil court as tortious interference with business or worse. Criminal liability under vandalism statutes is also likely. Then there is the matter of forgery and impersonation. For a message to be canceled, the cancelbot has to pretend to be the person who initially posted the message.

The freedom of speech issue is equally troubling. Does anyone want a situation in which a single individual can control speech on the Internet just because he wants to? How would you like it, personally, if you could be silenced by a 26-year-old hippie megalomaniac from Norway? You wouldn't. Neither would anybody else.

Anyone who dismisses this as the naughty prank of irresponsible but harmless college kids doesn't understand. The cancelbot ploy could easily be used by one business to stop another. In fact, there is an excellent chance that is exactly what happened to us.

In addition, why should anyone presume the cancelbots are going to limit themselves? What happens when they expand their concerns to ideas they simply don't like? The danger of self-styled dictators controlling speech is too obvious to discuss. All you need to do is pick up a history book to understand how evil this is. Unless cancelbots are stopped, the Internet is not the glorious future of communication but a potential force for widespread repression.

david_freedman@incmag.com From your conversations with professionals and businesspeople who are good candidates for selling on the Internet, do more than a small minority of them seem enthusiastic about it? For those who don't, is the problem that they haven't grasped the Internet or that they're too narrow-minded about how to market?

msiegel@cyber.sell.com In spite of any fear of reprisals, the folks we meet are not at all narrow-minded about Internet marketing. They want to throw themselves into it, full speed ahead.

The Internet offers all kinds of opportunities, especially possibilities for starting new businesses. That is because you can try out the viability of new products and services on a shoestring marketing budget. A word of warning, though. The Internet is just another way of reaching people, another communications medium. It's not marketing magic. It won't turn an otherwise unsaleable product into a winner.

One of the virtues of Internet marketing is that you can pitch your product or service more or less directly to the masses.

david_freedman@incmag.com But doesn't that make for a greater danger of fraud and deception, in that the Internet doesn't provide for the kind of at least minimal screening that television, magazines, newspapers, and most other conventional media provide?

msiegel@cyber.sell.com It has been our experience that conventional media such as television and magazines do so little screening that there really is no appreciable protection for the consumer. No medium acts as a guarantor for the public. Caveat emptor largely prevails across the board, until and unless someone commits a crime such as fraud. Then the FTC and FCC do in fact step in on the Internet as they would in any other type of situation. In fact, that happened recently in a fairly widely publicized case in which the FTC filed charges against an individual who was advertising a credit- restoration system that was deemed illegal.

As we've been trying to emphasize throughout, there's no great difference between communicating through the computer and other media. That's why we believe the FCC should officially take control of the Internet, just as it has all other communication media. The Internet is too big and powerful to go without official regulation. The public needs to be protected, and we have no doubt it will be. In a very short time, the dust will settle, and the mainstreaming of the Internet will be complete.

Last updated: Mar 15, 1995

DAVID H. FREEDMAN: A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.

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