|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 52||November 9, 1999|
It's easy to spot spam when it shows up in our mailbox in its most crass commercial form. There is nothing subtle about email with subject lines that promote get rich quick schemes or promise to fulfill sexual fantasies. This form of spam is so obvious that it can easily be deleted from our in-box unread, or filtered directly into the trash. It's annoying and sometimes offensive, but it's easily ignored.
But not all spam is commercial, and the people who send it aren't always strangers. I'm a lot more concerned about spam being generated by online activists. Email has proven to be a powerful outreach tool, but it won't be for long if its abused -- even for good causes. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. You download mail and find a "welcome" message for an alert list you never subscribed to, or an organization you never joined.
This happens when someone who was eager to "spread the word" about a particular cause or issue got a little too enthusiastic and added your address to a list.
If the message includes instructions on how to unsubscribe, or an address to contact the list owner, it's easy enough to fix. If the list is operated through one of the commercial list hosting services, you can even report the sender for abusing the service. I've found commercial list hosting services responsive to complaints about unauthorized subscriptions since they don't want their list services used for spam.
There is another, more subtle way activists may be spreading spam, often without even realizing it. It starts when we create a personal list by cutting-and-pasting addresses from a message we've received that contains multiple addressees.
If you do this occasionally, and take care to paste the addresses into the "BCC" field, it probably isn't going to be a problem. But if you do this a lot, or especially if you paste the addresses into the "To" or "CC" field where they will be disclosed to all the recipients, it could get you into trouble.
Here is an example, from my own experience, of how a single message to multiple recipients started a cycle of spam:
Last July, I was invited to co-facilitate a workshop on "The Net as an Organizing Tool" during a Bay Area Alternative Media Conference hosted by the University of San Francisco and sponsored by several non-profit groups working to promote greater diversity within the media.
As is the case with many non-profit events, resources were limited and some things didn't get done until the very last minute. Also, there wasn't a list serve set up for communicating with conference participants. So a few days before the conference, one or the organizers sent an email message to all the volunteer workshop facilitators -- about 35 people in all. The addresses were placed in the "To" field of the message, so everyone's address was fully disclosed to the other recipients of the message.
Distributed on July 8, 1999, this single message started a cycle of activist spam that is still continuing.
The conference took place on July 10 & 11. A few days later, on July 14, the same conference organizer who sent the July 8 message to all 35 conference facilitators sent two more messages, each addressed to some 76 recipients. The messages weren't about the conference, but about issues likely to be of concern to to the conference participants. Less than a week had passed since the conference and unsolicited email was going out to twice the number of people who received the original message.
More unsolicited email was sent to the same 76 addresses on August 28, and again on Sept. 20, Oct. 5, and Oct. 27.
Eventually, some of the recipients began to supplement the list with additional addresses. On September 20, and again on Sept. 22, messages were distributed with 187 addresses disclosed in the "To" field of the message header. These posts had so many addresses that the addresses were the only thing visible when the messages were opened. Recipients had to scroll through all the addresses before reading the message.
I've been responding to these messages with a personal note suggesting that the sender use the "Bcc" field to avoid disclosing the recipients' addresses when mailing to multiple addresses. But educating a half dozen inadvertent spammers won't stop the cycle of activist spam. By now early two hundred email addresses have been circulated. Any of those recipients could decide to copy-and-paste those addresses into a new message, continuing the cycle of spam.
None of these messages were commercial. All of them concerned important issues -- issues of interest to many of the recipients. But they were sent to people who hadn't asked for the information. It may be important information, but the way in which it was sent violates the privacy of those who want to keep their email addresses private. And it leads others to conclude that the practice is acceptable netiquette. Eventually, it could backfire, leaving Internet users reluctant to disclose their email addresses to activist organizations, or to subscribe to online alert lists.
So please -- don't start a cycle of spam. If you absolutely have to send an unsolicited alert, put the addresses in the "Bcc" field.
One of the more positive ways in which the Internet is changing communications is that it makes more sources of information readily available. Access is free to online versions of many major newspapers as well as a wide variety of alternative media. If all this information gets overwhelming, consider subscribing to one or more of the news services which provide Internet users with daily or weekly summaries of particular types of news. Most of these services provide subscribers with brief summaries of articles and pointers to the web sites where the articles are published. Typically, the services distribute their summaries by email. Some of these services are operated by nonprofit organizations and individual activists. We don't have a comprehensive list of these non-commercial services, but here are a few examples:
The Benton Foundation's Communications-Related Headlines http://www.benton.org/News/ is a service that provides daily summaries of articles related to communications and media policy, primarily from major East coast newspapers and industy trade publications.
HandsNet's WebClipper http://www.handsnet.org/information1239/information.htm is a daily news service which can be tailored to the individual member's interests. For example, some members might want to receive news related to childhood health issues, while another might opt for stories related to the issue of aging. Although there is a charge for this service, HandsNet offers a free trial subscription.
Join Together Online http://www.jointogether.org, which works on substance abuse and gun violence issues, offers a "plug-in" news service that allows groups working on similar issues to have news content delivered directly to their web site. (See the JTO Direct link on their home page.)
For those with an interest in alternative media, AlterNet http://www.alternet.org provides a weekly headlines summary of news from alternative media. The service also publishes some original content on the site.
For summaries of developments within the technology industry, try Edupage, at: http://www.educause.edu/pub/edupage/edupage.html. This service is more limited than some because it identifies the source of its summaries but doesn't include a point to the URL where the article appears online.
NetAction Notes has reported previously on Oregon Public Networking's struggle with the IRS over the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations which provide Internet access to people who can't afford it on their own. Recently, Shava Nerad prepared a detailed analysis of this important public policy issue. Organizations in other communities doing similar work may be interested in learning more about the situation in Oregon. The full report is at http://www.opn.org/irs/toolkit/whitepaper.html.
"Community networks can provide dial-up access to rural communities using modest cost recovery through fees, grant funding and donations, and community investment through volunteerism. This sustainable model treads lightly on the limited tax base of rural counties. By denying 501 (c)(3) status to community networks, the IRS could impost a delay of years on the cause of universal service to the Internet, particularly to remove rural communities," Shava writes.
"The IRS policy treats Internet access via a modem as a provisioned, commercial utility, without the need for training and community support or involvement. A public broadcasting professional compared giving rural communities unmediated access to the Net to 'giving someone a copy of an encyclopedia on CD-ROM, and telling them to put it under their pillow.'"
But Shava considers OPN's efforts to be at least a partial win, since the IRS to date has not gone after any other community networks.
Many uncertainties remain as we get closer to Y2K. But there is one thing we can count on: here in the U.S., 2000 is an election year. Internet-based political activity has been growing by leaps and bounds, and with a presidential election around the corner, it can only get more interesting.
The Benton Foundation has just published Regulating Net Campaigns, a Headlines Extra feature that summarizes recent articles discussing online electoral and issue advocacy campaigns http://www.benton.org/News/Extra/pi110499.html.
In addition, we've come across these interesting resources:
FAQvoter.com http://www.faqvoter.com is a commercially operated site that enables votes to get answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about upcoming elections, in this case the recent municipal election in San Francisco. It is a non-partisan,issue-neutral Web site that puts voters directly in touch with the political process and gives them an opportunity to ask questions directly of candidates, initiative authors, voter information groups, and other political experts.
When the election is over, you might find "How to Lobby Politicians" useful. The guide was produced in Australia, but much of the advice can be applied in any nation that elects the people who govern it. The guide is online at http://www.zeta.org.au/~aldis/lobby.html.
For a truly global resource, check out Address Directory - Politicians of the World, at: http://www.sneadsferry.com/community/politicians_of_the_world.htm.
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