King Of 'Spam' And Proud Of It

IN THE OLD DAYS, READING E-MAIL was fun; in fact, awakening to an empty mailbox was something of a disappointment. Now, when cubicle workers log on in the morning, their mailboxes are likely to be overflowing--not with memos from the boss or jokes from buddies down the hall, but with the electronic equivalent of junk mail, commonly known as "spam." Getting to that important report from the Poughkeepsie office often requires wading through scores of Miracle Diet offers or invitations to make serious income during spare time.

Next to busy phone lines, anger over spam (the term comes from the Monty Python "Spam, Spam, Spam" TV sketch about the meat product) was the top complaint of America Online members last year. Spam's a big headache for the people running the online services, too: not only does it inflame users, but processing the millions of messages costs money and can even cause systems to crash. Last year AOL got in a messy tug of war when it tried to stop spam from Wallace Sanford, a.k.a the Spam King. Wallace sued, claiming AOL was trying to put him out of business. AOL countersued, then blocked messages from Wallace. The two sides eventually settled, both claiming victory. Now AOL users can choose whether or not to block spam from Wallace and some other sources--but the deluge continues from other spammers.

Wallace is president of Cyber Promotions Inc., the nation's largest commercial bulk e-mail company. The 28-year-old college dropout fiercely defends his right to spam, arguing that outdated "netiquette" shouldn't hold back any form of free enterprise in cyberspace. In March, Wallace launched a service that allows anyone to relay unsolicited e-mail via Cyber Promotions's own mail server. For a price, individuals can launch spam while Wallace takes all the heat. Not interested? For less than $1,000, do-it-yourselfers can buy one program that lets them harvest e-mail addresses from member directories and Usenet postings and buy another program that lets them spam with near impunity by disguising their bulk e-mail's origin.

Last week Earthlink Network of Pasadena, Calif., declared war on spam and announced it was suing Cyber Promotions for $3 million. "If we allowed every business to send junk mail to every member, the whole system would be brought to its knees," says Charles G. Betty, Earthlink's president and CEO. Another service, Netcom, was inundated with 50,000 pieces of spam, causing the San Jose, Calif., company to shut down a part of its network for four hours. (Wallace says his company didn't send that e-mail, but a client may have.)

Such examples fuel the drive to make sending junk e-mail illegal. Several software companies have come up with programs that aim to block spam, but none is completely effective. Wallace and his Internet-access provider have a blocking plan of their own: they propose filtering spam through a master list of e-mail users who don't want to receive it.

"In every new industry there will always be a risk taker who does something people say can't be done," says Wallace. Maybe so. But the Spam King has lost an empire before. In the early '90s, he built a business that specialized in broadcasting faxes. Congress outlawed that form of junk mail in 1992. A similar law or court ruling may spur Wallace to look for another way to make money online.

King Of 'Spam' And Proud Of It | News