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Spambusters

Cyberwarriors of many stripes have joined the battle against junk e-mail. But the enemy is wily, elusive -- and multiplying.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Neil Swidey
Globe Staff / October 5, 2003

Laurence Canter leans forward, scrunches up his sunburned nose, and says with a smile, "I don't know -- do I seem that evil to you?" Then he holds out his palms and shrugs. He's a slight guy, "5-foot-9 on a good day," as he puts it, with a round face and a receding hairline. He's wearing a floral-print knit shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He's sipping a glass of pinot grigio. He looks about as menacing as the recording secretary of the local Kiwanis club. But in 1994, Canter was the most loathed and feared man on the Internet.

Canter and his wife at the time, Martha Siegel, were immigration lawyers in Phoenix. When the US Immigration and Naturalization Service announced it would hold a lottery for green cards, Canter saw a different kind of green. The Internet was then still something of a techie country club, open mainly to academics and computer engineers. Canter had always been a closet techie, and he figured the Net would be a good place to find well-educated, well-paid immigrants who were looking for permission to stay in this country. It didn't matter that applying for the green card lottery was free -- hey, so is filing your income taxes, but look how many guys charge people to file theirs. So Canter put together his message offering to enter immigrants in the lottery for $95 apiece. Then he posted it on a couple of Usenet newsgroups, those themed electronic discussion forums. When that pitch brought in a few clients, he decided to expand his reach.

On April 12, 1994, Canter found a way to blast his ad to every newsgroup that Usenet had to offer, more than 6,000 in all. With that one move, he incurred the wrath of techies everywhere. They were alarmed that Canter had brought crass commercialism into their country club and were convinced that if he wasn't stopped, Canter would turn it into a junkyard. But his blast worked: He calculates that it brought in almost $100,000 in revenue, with almost no outlay on his end. More important, it secured his place in Internet history. Others before him had dabbled in this kind of electronic marketing, but no one had yet harnessed the new medium for all its mass-distribution, shameless-promotion potential.

Laurence Canter is the father of modern spam.

Fast-forward to 2003. The country club is, if not a junkyard, then at the very least a public park so crowded as to be almost impassable. It has unspeakably filthy toilets and depraved hucksters hovering over every park bench and near every kiddie pool, peddling everything from herbal Viagra to bestiality peep-show passes. Parents are becoming afraid to let their kids anywhere near it.

The spam statistics get starker by the day. More than half of all e-mail is now spam. Spam is believed to be costing business $10 billion a year in lost productivity. More than half the states now have some kind of anti-spam law on the books, but the efforts have been hobbled by powerful lobbies, enforcement problems, and a lack of consensus about just what constitutes spam. And as much as the incessant come-ons have us all fuming at our screens, we don't know the half of it. Many corporate networks and Internet service providers, or ISPs, now run filters that block most spam before it gets to our desktops. AOL alone fends off about 2 billion spam messages every day. Still, as any AOL user will tell you, despite all the bluster about cracking down on spam, or maybe because of it, the junk is proliferating like never before. It has surged rapaciously in the last six months.

Can spam be stopped before it chokes e-mail to death? How long before a critical mass of the public, unwilling to withstand the daily assault, simply stops using e-mail?

The low-level fighting between techies and spammers that followed Canter's original blast has erupted into a full-scale war. And the most interesting dimension of the battle against spam is the manifold brigade of warriors now assembled to fight it. The group includes programmers and profiteers, litigators and legislators, law-enforcing scolds and law-breaking vigilantes. They have almost nothing in common besides their shared hatred of spammers and their evangelical insistence that they will triumph. About the only way to cool their fervor is to hit them with this reality check: Right now, rather than devising tomorrow's Web, many of the best minds in technology are spending their days trying to save the current one from ruin at the hands of a band of college dropouts pushing printer-cartridge refills and penis-enlargement pills. And they're losing. Badly.

A LINE OF GLASSES STUFFED WITH cutlery runs along the center of Paul Graham's dining room table. Graham didn't like running to the kitchen every time he needed a fork. "Designed for efficiency," he says. The same could be said of his entire $2 million mansard-roofed home that sits just outside Harvard Square. To buy the place, he dipped into his share of the $49 million payday he and two partners got in 1998 when Yahoo! purchased their start-up, Viaweb, and turned it into the Yahoo! Store. These days, the sandy-haired, youthful 38-year-old Graham is living the life.

Making arrangements to meet him, I suggest a 10 a.m. interview. "Ten is a little early," he replies. When I arrive at 11 the next morning, Graham, dressed in khaki shorts and a short-sleeve pullover, shows me around his quirky-while-classy three-story bachelor pad as his architect stands nearby plotting the next phase of the rolling remodeling effort. The decor includes 90 colorful antique potato mashers, an arresting floor-to-ceiling oil painting of a female nude by Richard Maury, and a doormat emblazoned with the words "Hi. I'm Mat."

For Graham, spam is the definition of inefficiency. It wastes money, bandwidth, and, lately, pretty much most of his time.

He came to spam by way of Arc, a new computer programming language he is designing. To test it, Graham decided to create a new e-mail program and spam filter. He began with a "rules-based" filter, in which computers are fed instructions such as "Don't accept any e-mail messages containing the word 'Viagra.' " But Graham soon realized why rules-based filters don't work: They're made for a static world, and spam is downright dynamic. By the time computers have been taught the Viagra rule, spammers have already moved on to alternate spellings of the potency pill, for instance, subbing the "i" with the numeral "1."

Then one day in the summer of 2002, Graham had his eureka moment. What if he could outsmart spammers by devising a filter based on Bayes's Rule? Named after the 18th-century British minister/mathematician Thomas Bayes, the theorem provides a way of determining probability by combining evidence. If an e-mail containing the word "Viagra" has a 96 percent probability of being spam, and one containing the words "credit card" has a 97 percent probability, what's the likelihood that one that contained both would be spam? Bayes's Rule figures that out.

Graham quickly designed his Bayesian filter, set up a bunch of "honey pots" -- Hotmail and Yahoo! e-mail addresses designed for the sole purpose of attracting spam -- and then watched his in-box clog up like the Central Artery on a Friday afternoon. To his surprise, he found that his new program filtered out all but five out of every 1,000 pieces of spam he was sent and had no "false positives" -- those pieces of "good" mail a filter mistakenly treats as trash. Also to his surprise: He found that the words "rake" and "dime" have a much higher probability of being spam than "porn," mainly because they're so uncommon in legitimate e-mail and so prevalent in all that "RAKE IT IN! WON'T COST YOU A DIME!!" strike-it-rich spam. ("Viagra" has a relatively low spam probability for Graham because his programmer friends are always mentioning it as a filtering example in the e-mails they send him.)

When he broadcast his "Plan for Spam" on the Web, Graham single-handedly revived the tech world's interest in filtering as a spam solution. The best part about a Bayesian filter is that, if you train it correctly -- and it does take a little technical know-how -- the filter gets smarter as you go along, watching what you consider spam and modeling your decision making.

Graham, who organized a spam-fighting conference at MIT earlier this year and is planning another for January, is convinced that he and the many others who have followed his Bayesian lead now have spam on the run. He's especially pleased with this summer's decision by AOL, that ultimate spam magnet, to install a new "adaptive" filter that sounds decidedly Bayesian. "This could be the beginning of the end," Graham says, more than a little triumphantly.

Meanwhile, instead of refining his new computer language, Graham finds himself obsessed with perfecting his spam filter. Right now, he's trying hard to find a way to block a new breed of spam, which is muted and conversational and looks a lot more like the e-mail you get from your sister than from any sinister spammer. These messages are often addressed to you by name and say something like, "Here are those pictures from my vacation that I told you about." (If you click on the link, you'll learn that they're not vacation photos at all -- or that you don't know your sister as well as you thought.)

"I can't catch that yet," Graham concedes. But, he wonders, how profitable can spam be if it's so understated as to almost forget to push the product? "How do you suggest to someone that their penis is going to be enlarged without using the words `penis' or `enlarge'?" Graham asks. No matter, he's determined to beat it. Many of the 580 people who came to his MIT conference are working on their own filters, and Graham is hearing footsteps. These guys -- there aren't many women to be found in this fight -- tend to have a commission salesman's obsession with keeping track of everyone else's numbers, in their case, the percentage of spam a particular filter catches. Graham says his now clocks in around 99.7 percent. About one colleague/competitor, he confides, "I'm pretty sure he's going to pass me this year."

Staying ahead of spammers and his fellow programmers is this dot-com millionaire's fuel. I ask Graham why he didn't try to cash in and sell his anti-spam armor. He squints his blue eyes and says, "Oh, no, I'm retired. How much money do you really need, right?"

JUST WHAT IS SPAM, AND IS IT ILLEGAL? To some extent, that depends on who you are and how it gets to you.

The states that passed anti-spam laws (Massachusetts is not yet one of them) have generally defined spam as "unsolicited bulk e-mail" or "unsolicited commercial e-mail" or a combination of the two. (The first definition would include electronic begging from the Red Cross or your state representative, the second would include an advance-showing alert from an exclusive art gallery.) But no state besides Delaware has made spam itself illegal. To break the law elsewhere, spammers have to commit some kind of fraud, such as making it look as though their fly-by-night RE-FI! offer is coming from your longstanding local bank, or they have to fail to put some kind of label like "ADV" in the subject line. Even then, few of the laws are robustly enforced.

But, to paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's line about pornography, we all know spam when we see it.

Lately, few people see as much of it as Sean True. Day and night, stationed in front of his computer, server, and three monitors in his Natick office, True wades through some of the slimiest, grimiest, and most tedious of Web commerce. Because his office also happens to be his home, his work on the wild side often takes place while his wife, two teenage sons, and dog are sitting in the next room.

"I was a much happier guy before I started doing this," says the 48-year-old True, wearing rumpled shorts and guzzling coffee. But it's all for a good cause. True has about 30,000 pieces of spam in his archive, and he adds to it every day.

Early this year, True and two of his co-workers at a speech-recognition company launched their own start-up, called Audiotrieve. If the company name fails to suggest any connection to anti-spam software, that's because it had none when they founded it. Their original plan was to create software that would enable fast, full-text Web searching of all kinds of audio and video that are currently inaccessible to Google and other search engines. But in his free time, True started tinkering with his own spam filter.

He began in the "open source" community -- the programmer's version of a lending library -- where he found lots of code for Bayesian filtering that other techies had written after Graham issued his call to arms. From there, True leveraged his speech-recognition expertise to try to get his spam filter to "learn" faster. That's important, because there is no universal, Potter Stewart-satisfying definition of spam. An unsolicited enticement for cheap cigarettes is destined to be deleted by most of us, but to heavy smokers it could be a ticket to more discretionary income. With a Bayesian filter, if you like getting spam messages for smokes, they'll keep coming.

Then True and his partners made the obvious decision: In a relentless recession that is particularly unforgiving to the high-tech sector, spam-fighting is one of the few growth areas. They would put their multimedia search software on hold and get a spam-stopper on the market as soon as possible.

Since July, they've sold about 1,000 copies of their new $24.95 product, which is called InBoxer. The reviews have been positive. To continue refining the filter, True must feed it a steady diet of new spam. He says he knows some programmers are content to share their secrets for free, but he feels that he and his partners can do well while doing good. Still, he won't forget all their open-source help. "There are people in that community that I owe serious cases of beer to when we become insanely successful," he says.

True and his partners are bringing a good product to people who want it. But they are just bit players in what is fast becoming a boom industry. The market for anti-spam solutions will grow to $2.4 billion over the next four years, according to The Radicati Group, a market research firm in Palo Alto, California.

All of which prompts a question: Is spam-fighting becoming so big a business as to, in fact, discourage the end of spam?

"The development of anti-spam software is not a good story," says Barry Shein, who runs the Brookline-based Internet service provider The World. "It's like hearing locksmiths and barbed-wire salesmen are moving into your neighborhood." Moreover, as a member of numerous committees charged with creating new Internet standards in light of the spam problem, Shein says, he occasionally gets suspicious that "some of the people around the table who are being argumentative and disruptive might have a vested interest in making money off spam. They've become the barbed-wire salesmen."

Shein is a tall, avuncular 50-year-old with a low, guttural voice, a gray goatee that he rubs often, and long wisps of gray hair that extend from his eyebrows. He spins a good yarn, and, when it comes to issues of the Internet, he has an incomparable perspective. That's because he was the first guy in the world to offer the general public dial-up access to the Internet. Back in 1989, before AOL, before Prodigy, there was Barry Shein, hooking up customers to the Internet from his second-floor office in the Tudor clock-tower building in Coolidge Corner.

Remarkably, he's still doing the same thing today, from the same cluttered office. He's proud of his longevity. But the clock may be about to stop. "To be honest," he says, "I don't know how much longer I'll be in this business."

He feels thoroughly beaten down by the costs and pressures of doing hand-to-hand combat with spammers -- Shein alternately calls them "scumbags" and "organized crime" -- while mollifying his now fewer than 10,000 subscribers, many of whom blame him when their 9-year-old sons find porn offers in their e-mail in-boxes. Says Shein, "It's become like licking toilets for a living."

In any accounting of spam's unwitting victims, the good people of Hormel have to rank somewhere near the top. True, their salty, watery canned pork product did not exactly have the reputation of beluga caviar before its name was hijacked by junk e-mail. But they really did nothing to deserve this bad rap.

Monty Python got them into this mess -- or, more precisely, those early techies who had memorized the lines to the British comedy troupe's act. In one classic skit from a 1970 episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a waitress rattles off the contents of a menu in which all the items contain Spam -- much to the distress of the customer seated in front of her. As she does this, she is repeatedly drowned out by a table of helmeted Vikings who sing, "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam! Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!"

For the techies, that perfectly captured the essence of relentless, annoying, repetitious, unwanted electronic solicitation. For a time after Laurence Canter's green card lottery postings, when the spam moniker really started to catch on, Hormel tried to squash it before eventually bowing to reality. But in July, Hormel found its new frustration point and filed a legal challenge with the US Patent and Trademark Office to prevent SpamArrest, a small Seattle-based maker of anti-spam software, from trademarking its name.

The courtroom has become an increasingly popular front in the spam wars. From Microsoft to Amazon, Earthlink to AOL, just about every tech heavyweight seems to be getting into the act these days, suing scores of spammers, usually alleging some kind of fraud.

Jon Praed is a Yale Law School graduate who used to work on Capitol Hill. Six years ago, while he was employed by a big, venerable Washington, D.C., law firm, he entered the seedy world of spam when he represented AOL in its effort to go after a junk e-mailer. Praed hasn't left it since.

In fact, the 39-year-old now runs a boutique law firm in Arlington, Virginia, that is focused exclusively on Internet litigation, with AOL his most prominent client. Praed is now part lawyer, part private detective, and part forensic scientist.

These days, few spammers do their spamming in plain view. The pressures from Internet service providers, Web-hosting services, and the general public are so strong that a good chunk of the senders of widespread spam are shut down within 24 hours. So companies that rely on spamming insulate themselves. For example, many porn sites enlist "affiliates." These freelancers often use cheap "harvesting" software to scrape the Web for millions of e-mail addresses and then blast spam to as many addresses as they can find, directing the recipients to their personal websites, which are, in turn, conduits to the original porn sites.

Sure, the freelancers' personal sites will quickly get shut down, but even if only a tiny percentage of people respond to the spam and only a couple end up paying for a membership to the porn site, the maneuver will have paid off. (Porn sites often pay affiliates more in commission than the sites collect from a new membership, because they assume the new customer will stay around for a while, and they can immediately sell that e-mail address to other porn sites for a premium.)

As the noose has tightened around spammers, their arrangements have become even more layered and foggy, involving forged or hijacked computer addresses and Web-hosting services in China and Eastern Europe. So Praed's detective work has become more complicated.

But spamming is all about making money, and at some point spammers have to reveal enough about themselves to collect their cash. Praed follows the money. Once he's locked onto his prey, he uses subpoenas, injunctions, and every other costly legal tool he can find to teach spammers that their work doesn't pay. "Spamming only survives because it pushes the costs onto innocent third parties," he says. "When those innocent parties can find a mechanism to push some of those costs back onto spammers, it has a big effect."

He says he's sued dozens of spammers and has yet to lose in court, though he sometimes agrees to settle. "In the end," he says, "you get to take their stuff."

Still, there are far too many spammers and far too much opportunity for obfuscation to make litigation a viable solution, at least on its own. (Also, many spammers are located in Florida -- Boca Raton is considered the spamming capital of the world -- where the laws allow for maximum protection of assets.) That's where legislation comes in. Here again, however, the news is not too promising, despite all the states that have anti-spam laws and the momentum building for the passage of one on the federal level.

David E. Sorkin, an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, has been tracking anti-spam legislation across the country since 1996. His exhaustive website, spamlaws.com, is a testament to both how much politicians now recognize the potency of the public's anger over spam and their nearly uniform performance in yielding to powerful lobbyists to make sure that only the mildest -- and largely unenforceable -- anti-spam laws pass.

After years of seeing anti-spam laws die in Congress, Sorkin says, "This year it seems quite possible that one of them will pass." But that won't necessarily be an achievement. "A bad spam law is worse than none at all," he says. Think about it: One of the few constraints on spam right now is the stigma of seediness attached to it. If Congress enacts legislation that prohibits only the most egregious spammers, it could become a green light for mainstream businesses, silenced by the new National Do Not Call Registry, to start spamming you on a weekly, or daily, basis.

For those anti-spammers who can't wait for the wheels of justice to turn or for all the wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill to wind down, there is another route: vigilantism. This category of warrior is a broad one, ranging from the relatively mild free agents to the shadowy lawbreakers. Some create blacklists (also called blocklists) of known spammers and share them with ISPs and corporate networks, so that e-mail coming from those sources is automatically blocked. Among these blacklisters, some are careful in their research and responsive to complaints from the wrongly accused. Others create their lists capriciously, providing no mechanism for getting off and penalizing lots of legitimate businesses that simply have the misfortune of getting their Web-hosting from a service that also happens to host a spammer. (Spammers have begun fighting back, using other computers as "Trojan horses" to overload the blacklisters' systems.)

Then there are the hard-core hackers, who believe the only way to beat spammers is to play as dirty as they do. Given their lawbreaking ways, they do this anonymously. But many have become folk heroes on the Web, such as the hacker who "flamed" a spamming company by getting all its phones to ring incessantly.

The catalogs started coming in the mail by the bushel. "Here's the information you requested," they said, except Minh Nguyen never recalled requesting any of them. Then his company's voice mail started getting clogged. Finally, the junk e-mail started coming in by the thousands, shutting down his computer system.

A victim of spam? Actually, Nguyen was a victim of anti-spam. He was a "bulk e-mailer," the term spammers prefer. Through his Framingham company, One Source Computer Corp., Nguyen set up a half-dozen websites, notably bestcheapstuff.com, and sold printer cartridges and other products. He paid a marketing company for a list of 20 million e-mail addresses and began sending out messages to drive traffic to his sites.

Then he ran into the anti-spam vigilantes. They put his sites on blacklists. They flooded his ISP with complaints until it dropped his service, and when they found out which ISP he was going to use next, they did the same there. He got his lawyer to send cease-and-desist letters to as many of the vigilantes and blacklisters as he could find. The vigilantes countered by creating a website about his lawyer, featuring her photograph and as much of her personal information as they could gather.

After a while, Nguyen gave up. "It was too much of a headache," he says.

Score one for the anti-spam crowd, right? Not exactly. Nguyen is still in the bulk e-mailing business. "Because of the hassle we ran into," the 43-year-old explains, "we decided we were just going to outsource." Nguyen says he now pays a company called Virtumundo and a few other firms to send out his bulk e-mails. The Kansas City-based Virtumundo, which is wholly owned by a 23-year-old who started the company as a college student, boasts that it has 60 million e-mail addresses of users who have "opted in" to receive e-mail solicitation. It is a stunning figure, given that there are only about 100 million American users on the Internet nowadays, and many of them would seem to belong to the Do-Not-Call-registering, spam-hating, leave-me-alone crowd. But by being "permission-based," Virtumundo can separate itself from spammers and would pass muster even if the toughest anti-spam federal legislation passed.

Ask Nguyen how this new approach is different from what got him tagged as a spammer, and he says, "I can't see the difference." Except for the fact that when the complaints come in, "they're being directed to the people doing the mailing."

Paul Graham, the Bayesian guru and dot-com success story from Cambridge, says Virtumundo and companies like it have collected some of their opt-in customers by buying up the mailing lists of bankrupt dot-coms, which had, buried in their terms of service, clauses stipulating the right to share subscribers' e-mail addresses. "If 60 percent of all Internet users in this country have signed up for Virtumundo, it should be pretty easy to find one of your friends who has done it. But you know what? If you ask, you won't find any of your friends who did."

Travis W. Tisa, executive vice president of Virtumundo, says his company bought addresses from third parties in the past, but a "bad experience" nearly two years ago prompted a new policy requiring that users "opt in" directly with Virtumundo. He says one of the company's most effective sources for new consumers has been its website treeloot.com, an "online money tree" that promises visitors the chance to win up to $25,000 in exchange for viewing advertisements.

Tisa says that when Virtumundo gets complaints from customers who insist they never "opted in," it happily removes their e-mail addresses from the the database. "We've built the company on getting people's permission," he says.

Still, it's a safe bet that there are people out there now getting permission-based pitches for Nguyen's products and websites, seeing them as yet more spam, and cursing as they wear out their wrists hitting the "delete" button. All of this suggests that by the time spam in its current form has been beaten, it will likely have morphed into something else.

This moving-target phenomenon is what makes the multiple-tour-of-duty warriors in the spam fight so much more pessimistic -- cynical even -- than the fresh recruits like Paul Graham.

Steve Atkins is a 33-year-old computer consultant in Palo Alto, California, who first enlisted in the spam wars eight years ago. He created a website called SamSpade.org, which gives users tools to track down spammers. He used to think spam could be stopped. Now he'll settle for containment.

How about Graham's Bayesian solution? "I know Paul," says Atkins. "Poor bastard. He's way too optimistic." Atkins's experience tells him that if these new filters become widely used, spammers will simply find ways around them.

"People who have not been working on the problem for a while don't follow through to the future," Atkins says. "They just focus on the state of things now." Even in the unlikely event that e-mail spam were stopped, the parasite would probably find a new host, he says. In Japan, where text-messaging between cellphones quickly became the dominant medium, spam has nearly overwhelmed it.

Most people involved in the fight admit that if spam is to be vanquished, it will take winning on three fronts simultaneously -- technical, legal, and legislative. The odds for victory on the technical front might be improved if leaders were willing to take truly dramatic steps, such as changing the longstanding protocols governing e-mail to remove its anonymity (making it much harder for spammers to hide) or charging a fraction of a penny to send each e-mail.

Even with spam outrage riding high, however, few leaders appear willing to mess with the essential components of e-mail's success -- its anonymity and lack of cost. So veteran warriors tend to fall into one of two categories: those who burn out and wave the white flag and those who find a way to salve their wounds while they fight on. Atkins falls into the latter group. He and his wife, Laura, who is president of the nonprofit SpamCon Foundation, now run a thriving, full-time consultancy company, helping ISPs and advertisers who use e-mail to avoid spam and avoid being confused with spam. "For us, absolutely, it's become profitable," he says.

If it's any consolation to all those techies who have yet to forgive Laurence Canter for what he spawned, he now says he'd like to become a spam-stopper, too. The father of modern spam rode the wave in 1994 -- he and his former wife even published a book, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway. But the fortune and infamy soon fizzled. He got tired of being chased by angry techies from one ISP to another. The business he and Martha Siegel started, called Cybersell, went bust. Eventually, so did their marriage. By 1996, he had moved to northern California to work as a software engineer and lower his profile.

That's where he remains today. On a recent Monday, he sits down at his computer in his L-shaped home in Sonoma County, where he and his girlfriend keep three miniature horses out back and a Mazda Miata in the garage. He opens his in-box to find that he's been hit with 679 spam messages in just two days. That's about average for him. That his daily barrage of spam is worse than most is probably a function of the number of years he's had his e-mail addresses out on the Web, and the fact that he once bought something -- a cordless mouse -- in response to a spam, making his address a golden commodity among spammers. (Sadly, he also found out about his former wife's death through spam. In December 2000, he says, he got a piece of spam pushing an ancestors' website. Out of curiosity, he typed Siegel's name into the database, and up popped her Social Security death record from three months earlier.)

Canter says he wishes he could write a program that would effectively block all spam while making sure all the good stuff still gets through. He has a friend in marketing who'd like to see him do the same thing, mainly because she's already come up with the winning name of the software they would sell: Father of Spam Kills Child. But he's afraid his progeny adapts too quickly.

For a long time, Canter tried hard to distance himself from spam and the lingering ire of the tech world. Yet he didn't protest when his girlfriend recently threw him a 50th birthday party that had a spam theme. Nowadays, he looks at spam with the same mix of anger and boys-will-be-boys admiration of a reformed hippie learning that his teenage son just got pinched for pot possession. Last year, in what he calls "a pure experiment," he inhaled once more.

Browsing through Amazon.com, he stumbled across a book called If You Don't Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students. He knew nothing about it and had never heard of its author (Neila A. Connors). But he immediately fell in love with the book on the basis of its title alone. He signed up his website as an Amazon.com "affiliate," meaning he would collect a small percentage from every book sold to someone who was directed to Amazon by his site. Pretty much anyone with a website can do that. But Amazon doesn't condone what he did next: Canter spent about a day harvesting the e-mail addresses of as many K-12 teachers as he could find, mostly by trolling public school websites, and then he blasted an ad for the book to 50,000 addresses.

Here's what happened: Nearly 700 people ended up buying the book after receiving Canter's spam -- enough to let the obscure treatise with a catchy title crack Amazon's Top 100 for a day. The maneuver provided Canter with about $700 in revenue, a form letter from Amazon asking him not to do it again, and yet another lesson about why this war will not be won anytime soon. "In spite of all the open hostility toward spam," Canter says, smiling, "if you're selling the right thing to the right person, the fact that it's come through spam won't stop them."

Neil Swidey can be reached at swidey@globe.com.

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