Column: More Hypocrisy From Anti-Spam Land

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Some anti-spammers have resorted to stealing to prove their point, and others are applauding it.


The theft in question was an attempt by an indeterminable number of Internet users made earlier this month to drown Alan Ralsky, anti-spammers' current public enemy No. 1, in unwanted direct mail.


Ralsky reportedly made enough money spamming to buy a $740,000 home in the Detroit suburbs and bragged about it to the press.


Not surprisingly, Ralsky is difficult to reach by phone, and I have yet to be able to interview him.


However, Detroit Free Press tech columnist Mike Wendland claims he has, and on Nov. 22 filed a piece explaining that Ralsky is "still very much in business, despite last month's much-hyped settlement of a lawsuit against Ralsky by Verizon Internet Services."


In the settlement to which Wendland referred, Ralsky was barred from sending e-mail to Verizon Online's customers and agreed to pay Verizon an undisclosed amount of cash. The settlement was reached in October and hailed as a victory in the spam wars.


"But that war still feels far away, down on the lower level of Ralsky's home, where racks of computers instruct scores of other computers halfway around the world to fire off millions of e-mails every day," Wendland wrote. "Ralsky said the legal fuss and settlement costs were a big hit and that things slowed down for a while. But now, after moving a few weeks ago into his new $740,000 house, he claims he's back in business."


Make no mistake, Ralsky is no sympathetic character. He is considered one of the top five spammers in the world and is reportedly unrepentant about it. Marketers can thank the Ralskys of this world for plummeting e-mail response rates.


However, someone in anti-spam land, aka Moronia, got Ralsky's new address using public records and posted it on tech site Slashdot.org. Someone else got the idea that it would serve Ralsky right if they signed him up for every direct mail list they could find. Apparently, many of them did. In a follow-up column Dec. 6, Wendland wrote that Ralsky is now complaining that he is being "inundated" with unwanted ads, catalogs and brochures.


Not surprisingly, anti-spammers' overwhelming reaction was, "Serves him right."


Maybe so, but it doesn't serve right the companies that fulfill the resulting bogus catalog and subscription requests.


Anti-spammers consistently argue that unsolicited bulk e-mail is theft because unlike postal direct mail, spam costs the sender little. Rather, unsolicited commercial e-mail transfers costs to those who must receive and handle it. Fair enough.


But signing people up for direct mail they don't want is theft as well. These anti-spammers are stealing from the companies they dupe into sending mail to Ralsky by falsely claiming his name is that of someone who is interested in learning more about their product or subscribing to their services.


That this concept isn't instantly apparent to them speaks volumes about some IQs. To be fair, a few of the participants in a 138-post discussion on anti-spam news group NANAE demonstrated a glimmer of an idea that signing Ralsky up for unwanted direct mail is wrong. But even those hedged.


For example, somebody under the name Bob wrote: "I do feel for the catalog companies ... it seems directly comparable to the abuse of email spam. Each of them is already willing to bear the small expenses of sending out catalogs in the expectation of aggregate business, and giving them addresses like this where it's unwanted is wasting a small portion of the resources of each."


But later in the post, Bob writes: "Postal junkmail is vastly different from spam, Ralsky isn't even forced to pay. As 'payback' goes this is woefully inadequate. Of course if it's got his goat already, that could be a good thing."


Another comes closer to the point: "But it is the catalog companies that are doing the paying. Remember, as much as we might be annoyed by junk postal mail, at least the sender is bearing a great deal of the cost of it."


But not once is this adolescent prank characterized as the theft that it is. What's more, it apparently doesn't occur to any of these self-professed fighters for truth and justice that if everyone operated the way they did, the overall cost of marketing and advertising would skyrocket, and the costs would be passed on to all of us.


As for more gems from the NANAE participants, there's Dan who sums up many radical anti-spammers' overall philosophy: "It should be illegal to send a commercial ads (sic) to people who don't want them, no matter who is paying the physical costs."


Duh, OK, Dan, as soon as we perfect the Ad-O-Meter Consumer Mind Reading Device, we'll get right on it.


And representing those who live in shacks in Montana, Gary wrote, "I think sending him [Ralsky] a box containing an ordinary housebrick, and a pre-wound alarm clock with a really loud ticker would make a fine gift."


Oh, I get it. Kaboom. Ha-ha, Gary.


Finally, Jim offered the most common assessment of the situation: "So now, Ralsky, you know what it's like being on the receiving end of your endless deluge of spam, eh? Good."


Right on, Jim. Stealing is a fine way to make a point.


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