This system of canceling messages mostly works to keep the spam levels down.
People post complaints to news.admin.net-abuse, and if they are upheld on
investigation the offending messages get deleted. The precise definition of spam
varies slightly, but in general a message will be considered spam if it goes out to
more than twenty newsgroups on unrelated topics or if many copies are posted to
the same newsgroup within a short period of time ("spew").
After havoc was created when a number of people independently set up anti-spamming robots to
get rid of the "Skinny Dip" posting, the cancelers developed systems to make sure
they don't duplicate each other's efforts.
At the same time, the cancelers are aware that the difference between providing a
useful service and exercising censorship can be slim. Accordingly, they operate
with checks and balances and a trail of accountability. Check into any of the
news.admin.net-abuse.* newsgroups and you'll see careful logs explaining what's been canceled and why; in addition, each cancel message clearly identifies who the canceler was, although some cancelers protect their real-world identities.
Any reasonable person would have to conclude, however, that all the fears that the
"Green Card" posting raised have pretty much come true. There are very few areas
of Usenet these days where you don't have to pick your way through piles of spam.
And most of them follow precisely the patterns set by the MMF, "Green Card," and
"Skinny Dip" postings: they offer questionable services or products, or get-rich-
quick schemes better described as rip-offs. It is exceptionally unpleasant and
Nonetheless, even though cancellation activities identified roughly 275,000 spams in October 1996 up from about 100,000 in October 1995, they are
still controversial on the Net among what appears to be a small but vocal minority
of Usenet posters who don't like censorship in any form. An alternative has been
proposed by Cancelmoose itself, now retired, a system called NoCeM (pronounced
"no-see-um"), which instead of canceling messages distributes authenticated
cancels, leaving it up to each individual site to decide whether to honor all or some
of these. As of early 1997, this system looks to be gaining some acceptance.
Canter and Siegel remain two of the most hated people who ever posted a Usenet
article. Their book was panned on the Net as well as offline by Net-
loving reviewers who rubbed their hands at the prospect of trashing it, while Wired
refused to accept ads for it. (In 1996, when the magazine ran a profile of "Spam
King" Jeff Slaton, who said he'd taken his cue from the lawyers, Siegel wrote a
letter to the editor accusing the magazine of hypocrisy.) The book
itself not only did well enough to warrant a second edition in 1997, but spawned a
plethora of imitators, most of which advise at least some restraint. The electronic
"mall" Cybersell, which they announced in 1994 to market products across the Net,
seems to have disappeared, although there are others, such as Barclays Bank's
As of this writing, it looks like the old net.culture is fighting a losing battle. An
endless number of chain letters, pyramid schemes, envelope-stuffing scams, and
"promotional opportunities" are circulating, and no amount of education in
Netiquette will make the perpetrators care about contributing to a useful
environment. At the same time, some of the old controls that might have curbed
some of this abuse are gone. Internet service providers (ISPs), anxious to grab as
many new users as they can, make it fast and easy to sign up online. By the time
the credit card number gets checked, the spammer has posted and moved on, not
caring about either the Net or the ISP, which is left to cope with the complaints.
Serious responses are directed to the spammer's own email address on another
ISP somewhere else, or to a phone number or address offline. Britain's Internet
Watch Foundation, considering strategies to control the availability of illegal
material on the Net, identified users of free trials as "probably the most significant
source of anonymity which is abused."
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