Arizona Lawyers’ Spiced Pork Product Hits the Big Fan; Net Sets New Flaming Record
by Michael Macrone
When Laurence Canter, of the husband/wife Arizona law-firm Canter & Siegel, posted an advertisement in April for immigration “services” on about 5,500 separate Usenet newsgroups, disgusted readers branded his action “spamming.” Why? Let's check with the experts:
DeWitt scores points for respecting the brand name (thanks to a vigilant editor?), but, as thousands on the Net would gladly tell you, he and the rest are a little off the mark. (Check out the Jargon File for the scoop.) Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see a Times reporter fantasizing in print about how to do violence with potted meat (a meat that, ironically, would star on the cover of the Times Magazine two months later).
Despite their disagreement in defining “spam,” these Net-watchers all recognize a great story when they see it. The ire of the Usenet was indeed awesome to behold, and the clash had all the earmarks of an archetype. Plus, there were lots of juicy bits to quote from the multitude of postings describing in graphic detail what various offended parties wished to see done to Canter & Siegel. (What got everybody so mad wasn't just the volume of C&S postings, which cost a lot more to receive and read than to send. Worse was the indiscriminate blanketing of practically every unmoderated newsgroup, including places such as rec.pets.cats and sci.physics, where offers of help with green-card applications were slightly off-topic.)
Helpfully, the lawyers had included their phone and fax numbers in the spam, which was fat bait to those not content to e-jam C&S's e-mailbox with flames. (Traffic to the site whence they spammed was so high it crashed the system.) People speculated openly in postings to alt.stop.spamming and alt.current-events.net-abuse about such dubiously legal rebukes as faxing the law firm an endless loop of black paper and subscribing Martha Siegel to 400 magazines. Slightly more creative was the idea of filing bogus change-of-address cards for the firm and having their mail forwarded to the IRS, the Tennessee Bar Association (who licensed them), another immigration lawyer, or Antarctica.
Some of these flames escaped from their pit and took hold of the Times. Lewis's columns on the incident—he writes about one a month—have won him few admirers among the vocal faction of Usenet readers. The first of the pieces, published April 19, was particularly offensive, in that it appeared unjustly partial to the plucky lawyers and their innovative marketing practices. Lewis's article (peaking with Canter's vow to strike again) also neglected to sufficiently challenge the lawyers' claim that what got people mad was—horrors!—commerce on the info superhighway, and that the backlash was a puritan prudery and clubby elitism.
Apparently stung by the criticism, Lewis bounced back on May 11 with a considerably more Usenet-friendly reassessment. The spam was identified. The crime was demoted from the Net's unpatriotic anti-capitalism to Canter and Siegel's atrocious “netiquette.” The word “abuse” did appear. Experts warned that more spam would spell an end to Usenet as we know it. This sort of forecast goes on the Net by the name, “Imminent Death of the Net Predicted—News at 11,” which does show an admirable degree of self-consciousness.
C&S weren't going to take this lying down; and Siegel, who's become the pair's spokesperson, is back on the attack in Lewis's most recent installment, “Censors Become a Force On Cyberspace Frontier” (June 29, page A1). As an example of censorship, Lewis alludes to the work of 25-year-old Norwegian programmer Arnt Gulbrandsen, who devised a program called a “cancelbot” that hunts down spam and squishes it. (Lewis does not use the word “spam,” however.) The question of honest commercial expression reappears. Siegel gives vent to her ire at the slimeball (and illegal) tactics of her net.enemies (she mentions death threats) and predictably lends weight to the theme of censorship. “What does this mean, that everyone on Usenet will have to meet the standards of this Gulbrandsen guy or he will take it upon himself to cancel their messages?” Net readers were particularly delighted by Siegel's last words: “If anything is going to bring down the net, it'll be things like robot cancelers and self-styled censors.”
This see-saw journalistic performance is almost as dramatic as the rhetoric of its agons. Lewis at least isn't taking a fixed position on whether unbridled net-vertising is God-given right or the doom of cyberspace. That these are the appropriate terms for discussing the issue is still an open question. Some on-line commentators wonder whether “censorship” is an operative concept in a global anarchy like Usenet. Others voice doubts that anarchy is a good thing after all. “Net.cops” as a term of sarcasm hasn't surfaced much lately. The search is on for a Saul to lead the kingdom.
Chances are good that, if in the unlikely event that the Usenet installs a leadership, Saul's fate will be replayed as farce. One of the most tired of truths is that, as the saying goes, “the Net understands censorship as error and routes around it.” The only rules are voluntary conventions which, though fiercely defended by keepers of the flame, will always be flouted by champions of “free speech,” even if they're posturing wolves in sheep's clothing.
For now, the issue of censorship is something of a canard. There's no way of practically distinguishing the “rights” of spammers from the “rights” of a cancelbot. In neither case are we really dealing with speech, since both the propagation and destruction of messages is carried out automatically by programs, albeit clever ones. You can bet, though, that there are lawyers right now weighing the precedents and anticipating the suits. And you can bet that Canter & Siegel are going to be in on the action.
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Copyright © 1994 by Michael Macrone