In 1978, the first unsolicited e-mail was sent, to hundreds of users of the government computer network Arpanet. The phenomenon would later be demarkated as “spam” and revered as one of the most lucrative and controversial trends in Internet history.
Immediately after the message was sent, complaints were rampant and the sender was attacked by Arpanet, though he was not charged with a crime.
Gary Thurek was a marketing employee with the Digital Equipment Corporation, which went under and was sold to Compaq in 1998. Little did he know he’d make it into the history books, and is remembered every five years or so around this time.
The origin of the word “spam” to mean unsolicited messages is somewhat muddled. However, according to influential blogger Brad Templeton, it is generally believed to be linked to the Monty Python sketch in which characters would repeatedly sing the word “spam” to annoy everyone else in the skit.
In the early 1990s, when online message boards were quickly populating, one fad that emerged was to send the words to Python’s spam song to numerous people at once. Thus, “spam” quickly became associated with any mass posting.
Others suggest that the acronym was purposefully created to stand for “single post to all messagebases,” though that’s widely debunked as a “backronym,” an acronym meaning attached to a word after it has already become ingrained in popular culture.
In 2003, Congress passed the CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act, officially controlling the out-of-control spamming industry. It requires individuals and companies to meet certain requirements before they can send out mass e-mails, and they must give users the ability to opt out of future mailings.
After the law went into effect, in 2004, Bill Gates said he believed the Internet would be spam-free by 2006. By some estimates it still accounts for as much as 90% of all e-mail sent.
The most common use of spamming is to sell or advertise a product, in the hopes that some people reading the message would bite. The cost of sending out a million e-mails is minimal, and the potential return, even if just 1% responds, is appealing to professional spammers.
Other uses of spam have triggered investigations from the Securities and Exchange Commission as people send out e-mails claiming that certain penny stocks will shoot up. This gets a bunch of users to buy the stock, making the price artificially inflate, and then the spammers sell while it’s at a premium.
There have been some notable spam prosecutions in the US, and a handful have even received jail or prison time. However, hundreds of spammers continue to carry out their work untouched.
“So long as email is still usable, I think spam is just going to be some of the necessary background noise. I think there are enough methods that bad guys could use to continue to pump out spam for years to come that we’re still going to be stuck with it for awhile,” said John Aycock in a New Scientist online article.
Hormel’s “Spam” food product has a much-discussed 50-year shelf life. It looks like electronic “spam” will last much longer.