On store shelves throughout America sits Spam, the ugly duckling of the meat world. Packed tightly into high-density cubes, it lacks the substance of a T-bone and the prestige of a quarter cut. Where a porterhouse is cooked thick and juicy, this loaf of pinkish stuff is merely wet and mushy. Indeed, Spam has fallen from a wartime staple to being the punch line of many jokes.
It’s also the inspiration behind a long-standing Internet insult. If someone accuses you of “spamming,” he’s ultimately saying that you too lack substance. This phenomenon occurs frequently on newsgroups, where users can read and post messages on thousands of topics. Users who engage in the decidedly uncool activity of spamming send out copies of their message to every discussion group he or she can find, regardless of the subject matter. Disregarding convention, messages about legal services may end up in a group discussion of fishing, or advertisements for an adult CD-ROM may end up in a K-12 school forum.
Spamming does, of course, make most Internet users hopping mad. It’s also a major irritant to most Internet service providers tooeven the big ones. America Online is in the middle of a court battle over spamming right now. One of its users, a Philadelphia firm called Cyber Promotions, sued the company for blocking one of its e-mail transmissions. Cyber Promotions has made a business of spamming, “mass mailing” e-mail messages to promote its products.
After several complaints from users, AOL blocked the company from sending out mass mailings. In turn, Cyber Promotions sued, claiming a violation of its rights as an AOL customer. “Once anyone gets on to the Internet [as a service provider], they open themselves up as a public thoroughfare,” says Cyber Promotions attorney Paul Kochanski. “They have to let the mail go through.”
America Online disagrees, saying it has a duty to the Internet community to stop the abuse of e-mail. Through a spokesman, the company says it was blocking only “a handful of the most abusive junk mailers who have generated numerous member complaints.” So far, a total of five mailers have been banned, three of them belonging to Cyber Promotions.
At least for now, it seems that the federal government agrees with Cyber Promotions. Late last week, a judge issued an order prohibiting America Online from blocking any e-mail, even from a so-called “spam” service. The restraining order tells America Online not to block Cyber Promotions mailings to “recipients who wish to receive the mail” and not to interfere with Cyber Promotions’ business relationships with Internet service providers.
Kochanski says that mailings from Cyber Promotions give instructions for users who want to be removed from the company’s mailing list. Therefore, one might guess, the company feels it’s covering its bases. America Online, meanwhile, is shocked by the ruling and says it will probably appeal the decision.
The issue is not whether AOL has the right to block e-mailas a contracted provider of a service, it shouldn’t have the right to block any electronic correspondencebut whether Cyber Promotions has the right to assemble massive lists of e-mail addresses for junk mailings. While it may be annoying to have to remove oneself from a junk e-mail list, at least it’s an optionand it’s much easier to do with e-mail than with regular mail.
Internet users are just going to have to get used to the phenomenon of promotional spamming. Cyber Promotions is well within its rights to send out junk e-mail, but it should recall the lesson taught to us by a small, blue can of luncheon meat: While something may serve a purpose at one point in time, if it becomes obsolete or goes out of fashion, it can become the butt of many jokes.
♦ Christian music devotees in Nashville now have a place to congregate (no pun intended) on the Web. Radio station WAY-FM has set up shop at http://wayfm.com/ . Using RealAudio and Quicktime, the site boasts lots of flashy video and audio from such artists as Jars of Clay and Eric Champion. The site also recently hosted a world-premiere party for an Essential Records product called “Vibe Central,” due in Christian music stores this month.
♦ Cheekwood has entered the Internet age with a bang and a Web site. Try http://www.cheekwood.org/ for a tour, but be sure to set your browser’s memory requirements a little high: It’s a bit heavy on the graphics.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.