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Time to feel sorry for spammers?

Crime, punishment and Spam King Robert Soloway

Some big news in the tech world this week is that Spam King Robert Soloway was released from prison. This is the guy who admits sending more than a trillion spam e-mails back when he was operating his illegal business, gaining as much as $20,000 a day from his spamming profits. Perhaps a worse crime was that he hijacked other people’s computers to create spam zombies, forcing others to unwittingly help him perpetuate his crimes.

But he certainly paid for what he did, spending three years and nine months in federal prison. I note that almost four years behind bars is more than most criminals, even violent ones, spend for their crimes. He recently said in an interview in Wired Magazine that he had changed his ways and was going straight. Feds are skeptical of course, and they can monitor all his e-mails and website visits for the next three years, just to be sure.

The thing that I found odd about the Soloway story was that I actually felt a little bit sorry for the guy. Then when I went back and looked at previous columns I had written about spammers years ago, I found that I was much less sympathetic. In one piece, I talked about the "Fallout 2" computer game and a random encounter in which a group of villagers are beating a spammer to death out in the wasteland. I was so angry with spammers at the time that my character in the game happily joined in to put the scum down.

So why am I feeling sorry for a guy who spent a few years getting three meals a day in the federal pen? That’s surely better than the fate of spammers in Fallout’s wasteland.

I think it has to do with the role of spam today. Going back five or 10 years ago, there weren’t really too many good defenses against spam. Most people had no protection at all. When scanners for spam started to become more common, we found that all the ones the lab tested were content-based and very spotty. False positives were the worst problem. You couldn’t send an e-mail to your mother asking how her new prescription drugs were treating her, an invoice to one of your clients or a note to your publisher asking about advertising. All of them might get caught in the ubiquitous spam filter nets along the way. With so many false positives, most people simply did without any type of filter.

In that climate, inboxes filled up with so much spam that they almost became unusable while many legitimate messages were still being blocked. Spammers were killing a very cool technology with their greed. I even got angry with all the stupid people who bought Viagra — or some blue M&Ms they thought were that drug — from spam ads, which kept the spammers in business.

Simply put, I was mad as hell.

But these days spam, although still a problem, is mostly under control. Filters are much, much better, fed by central facilities that find new spam and block it on computers they protect. Challenge and response appliances, such as the Sendio ICE box that the lab uses, drop 99.99 percent of all spam before it even reaches the exchange server. One month alone, our Sendio dropped half a billion pieces of spam. That none got through says a lot.

Spam is becoming a quaint annoyance instead of a threat these days, kind of like those unwanted cruise ship ads that still come in once in a while via the fax machines of the world. As the threat decreases, so does my, and I think most people’s, anger toward spammers. As of right now, almost four years behind bars is an appropriate punishment. Let’s hope that Soloway learned something, and that his time will serve as a warning to those thinking of getting into this criminal enterprise.

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