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Junk mail finds the Internet


In the beginning, there was junk mail. In the end, there will probably still be junk mail. It seems the method of delivery is the only sure thing to change.

It was only a matter of time before visions of dollar signs drew the same clever marketing geniuses who brought us junk faxes to the Internet. What better, faster, cheaper, more effective way could there possibly be to reach mass markets? And while commercial use of the Internet was once prohibited, that's no longer the case ... or is it?

As it turns out, there's still a gray area regarding appropriate or acceptable use of the Internet. Currently, net watchers looking for cues are awaiting the outcome of a widely publicized lawsuit pitting a small Internet service provider (ISP) against industry giant America Online. After its subscribers complained en masse, AOL began bouncing junk mail back to the source, effectively shutting down the offending mailer's ISP. The advertiser and the ISP cried foul, complaining that AOL was limiting their constitutional rights to freedom of expression. AOL countersued, and both cases are making their way through the justice system.

"Internet law is a new untapped resource for lawyers looking for new frontiers," says Mike Gardner, assistant director of the UI's Computing and Communications Services Office. "Few, if any, laws exist that specify how you may act on the Internet. In lieu of that, those of us who must try to regulate how people behave turn to existing laws and attempt to apply those as fit."

Naturally, Gardner said, many people turn to the U.S. Postal Service and its regulations when seeking direction. "While it's not a bad model to start with," he said, "it in fact doesn't fit very well. Many of the 'normal' restrictions, like having to pay for every piece of junk e-mail you send out, don't exist on the Internet. Yes, you have to pay for your Internet access, but you can send one copy of e-mail out, with 200 addresses and someone else's machine ends up copying and distributing the mail. Thus, a tiny resource can affect many, many people."

"The major problem with junk e-mail here," said CCSO's postmaster, Bruce Gletty, "is that most people have quotas on their incoming mail spool, and many people tend to leave stuff in their in-box. So, junk mail puts them over quota and they lose mail."

While that can cause problems for individual users, those who provide the campus with network services have a more basic bone to pick with junk e-mailers. Just as junk faxes wasted the recipients' resources, junk e-mail has similar effects.

"There are still a lot of people out there who think the campus network [UIUCnet] and Internet are free, thus there couldn't be any restrictions on their use." That's simply not the case, he said. "The university's network and Internet access are expensive, university-supplied resources -- thus all use of those nets fits under the university's general 'Use of University Resources' policy. That is, all university resources are to be used only for university-approved purposes."

Gardner added that a recently drafted policy on UIUCnet will be released soon, and should clarify issues regarding acceptable use of the network. The policy "basically takes existing campus policies and tries to state them in terms of various network services," he said.

The UI is not alone in its efforts to limit the use of its networks. Most other universities have similar policies, and, Gardner said, many ISPs have their own "acceptable use policies," which restrict users from doing things that "generally cause troubles for other users."

"These restrictions, so long as they are based on traffic, financial impact on others, malicious activity, etc., are perfectly legal," he said.

And while many ISPs do have and enforce well-written AUPs, there are plenty who don't. Therefore, Gardner said, "it is quite possible to live on an "Intranet, like UIUCnet, and not be permitted to send junk mail, but be forced to endure receiving it."

Given all this, what -- if anything -- can UI faculty and staff members do when they check for e-mail and find a message extolling the benefits of the latest brand of "scientifically tested" wrinkle creams?

"Delete it and ignore it." That's the simple, no-nonsense approach recommended by Gletty. "If you get several [messages] from the same place, complain to the postmaster there, and send a copy of the complaint to postmaster@illinois.edu." And, Gletty added, be sure to include a copy of the offending note -- complete with all headers -- with your complaints.

From there, Gletty determines the next move.

"It depends on who the sender is, and how much junk has shown up," he said. "Frequently, the offender's account has already been terminated before I see the junk. In bad cases, we contact the postmaster at the offending site, and if they are unresponsive, their ISP. If they are unresponsive, we can resort to just refusing stuff from the offender campuswide.

"If it's from a user here on campus, we contact the offender if possible and convince them not to do it again," he added. "If we cannot contact them, or if they are repeat offenders, we disable their account."

Gletty said some mail programs also allow people to filter out all messages originating from specified addresses or sites. For more information about using a filter, Gletty suggests two options: "People running their own mail servers need to see their systems administrators; people using CCSO machines should be able to get help by calling the Resource Center at 244-1258.

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Comments to: Inside Illinois Editor Doris Dahl, (217) 333-2895, d-dahl2@illinois.edu

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