Father of Spam Speaks Out on His Legacy

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Back in 1978, when the thing we now all think of as annoying, unsolicited, inbox-clogging email was just the canned, spongy sandwich meat, one man sent an email to 400 people, marketing his company's new product.

With that one fateful move, email spam was born.

Gary Thuerk, now in sales at computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co., sent out that original spam back when the Internet was called Arpanet, and researchers and the military were the only ones using it. As a marketing manager at the East Coast-based Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Thuerk sent out the bulk email inviting West Coast techies to a demonstration of Dec's new Decsystem-20.

When those early email users checked their inboxes, they discovered this foreign-looking message with a cc list that took up so much room it spilled into the message's body. They simply had never seen a mass email before.

Some seemed happy to receive this nifty notification. Some people cursed Thuerk when their computers crashed. And the Defense Communication Agency scolded Thuerk, prohibited him from doing it again.

Despite the scolding, Thuerk says it was a great idea.

He saw these mass emails as a cheap, effective way to get a message to a whole lot of people. He's proud that he sent the first spam, comparing his move with the Wright brothers' virgin airplane flight.

In the 26 years since then, spam has spiraled into a daunting digital phenomenon. Analysts estimate that 2.5 billion pieces of spam are circulated every day, accounting for nine out of 10 American emails. Spammers wreak havoc on Internet providers and corporate mail servers everyday, forcing companies to hire technicians to do nothing but deal with the deluge of spam.

Industry analyst firm Ferris Research estimates that in 2003, we wasted 15 hours deleting email, compared to 2.2 hours in 2000. And MessageLabs Inc., a managed email security firm based in New York, says spam now makes up more than 80 percent of all email being sent around the world.

The government even got in on the battle this past year, passing the CAN-Spam Act. In a legislative attempt to combat what is largely seen as a digital plague, the act applies civil and criminal penalties to offenders.

In a one-on-one interview with Datamation, Thuerk says he doesn't feel any regret for starting spam. People don't throw cocktail weenies at him when he walks into a party. Instead, he says they ask for his autograph. Thuerk also talks about how successful that first spam was, how he feels about being known as the Father of Spam, and, if he had the chance, would he do it all over again.

Q: Who actually came up with the idea to mass email these people?
I did. I looked at sending out invitations and calling all of those people, but it was too hard to reach them by phone and too expensive and slow to print out invitations and send them. My project manager, Carl Gartley, actually typed in all of the email addresses on and off for a couple of days.

Q: What kind of reaction did you get?
It was a mixed reaction. Some people I saw were glad to have the information... Other people said they didn't want the email and that it ate up all of the free space on their computer. It used up all the disk space on a professor's computer at the University of Utah.

Q: Was it effective?
It was very effective. We had a presentation in L.A. and in Silicon Valley and a lot of people came to see the demonstration. It resulted in $10 million to $12 million in sales over the next several years.

Q: Were you encouraged by the results?
I was very encouraged, but the DCA [Defense Communications Agency] said I wasn't allowed to do it again, and that they would take measures if I did. Some people called and complained to my manager, Fred Wielham.

Q: What was the DCA's reasoning behind telling you not to do it again?
They said Arpanet was considered a research vehicle, not to be used for commercial uses. If someone had wanted to set up Amazon.com in those days, they wouldn't have been allowed. Everything changed when it became public.

Q: Did you continue to send spam after that warning?
I sent out more information to a few more people, but only one person at a time. They were responses to inquiries, mostly. We didn't do any more mass mailing. The mass mail was sent to people we didn't know. We sent individual emails to the people we did know.

Q: What did you call these mass emails back then?
It wasn't called spam. It was just unsolicited email.

Q: How do you know for sure that you sent the first spam?
Arpanet in its early development was mostly for research, not productivity. Everything that went on back in those days was all kept online, and there is readily available information that proves it.

Q: How do you feel about your title, The Father of Spam?
It's been a lot of fun. I say to people, ''Don't make me mad. I'm one of the original spammers!'' People always introduce me as the Father of Spam. I never bring it up, but other people do.

Continue on to find out how people react to Thuerk when they find out who he is, and whether or not he would do it all over again.

Q: How do people react when they find out who you are?
You never really know what the reaction will be. Some people just ask, ''Did you really do that?'' Other people want a picture or an autograph -- that kind of stuff. I only get a little bit of negative reaction and mostly I just read it in emails or on Web sites. I never really get a negative personal reaction.

Q: What do you think about spam today? Is it the plague of the Internet or a valid marketing tool?
It's a nuisance. It's like the advertising you get in the mail at home. The only difference is the government hasn't taxed it yet or tried to put a fee on it.
The public has grouped all kinds of email into the spam category... Specifically, spam is just unsolicited email. There is a difference between stuff that jumps up at you on Web site and spam... Spammers and phishers sure are creating a bad name for spam. There is all kinds of garbage being sent out. They are mass mailing just because they can.

Q: How much spam do you get?
I hardly get any spam at all. I don't count the junk email I get. I get a lot of that everyday. I don't get spam daily, though... I never fill out any personal information on Web sites because it all goes into some kind of marketing database.

Q: How does it make you feel that some people have stopped using email or don't use it as much because of the amount of spam they're getting?
That's OK. I'm also restricted in my use. I think about it before I send anything and before I use the Web.

Q: Do you still send spam?
Yes. I have a couple of distribution lists... one for tech news and a larger list for jokes and non-computer news. I send emails to these groups of people, but not to anyone that I don't know. These are groups of people that expect to get it from me.

Q: What should be done to curb the amount of spam being sent everyday?
I don't expect it to go away soon. I expect the government to figure out a way to tax it. That is inevitable... Unless they find a technological way to limit the amount of email, they will have to tax it. Once they tax it, they will have control and will be able to regulate it.

Q: Do you think the CAN-Spam Act is effective?
I don't know if it will do what they say it will do. I haven't studied it... but what happens with government stuff is that it gets too confusing and overburdening. It becomes its own guerilla.

Q: Do you ever think about the fact that laws have been created to curb spam, and that battling spam has grown into its own industry?
One guy I work with came up to me to thank me because his daughter got a job [fighting spam] because of me. Stopping spam isn't that much different than stopping the security problems like worms and viruses. It's all related.

Q: Do you feel guilty for sending the first spam?
I never feel guilty. Someone would have done it... I am kind of like the Wright brothers, flying the first airplane. It was a long time before people took a commercial flight. I sent out the first mass email in 1978 and it wasn't until 10 or 15 years later that people realized they can send advertising over email for cheap.

Q: Would you do it all over again then?
Sure. The biggest complaint was not about the notification. It was that the distribution list went into the body of the email, so you saw half of the names in the actual email. All we had to do to do it smarter was to make up a list of smaller distribution lists. It was efficient and quick, and it was cheap.

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