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No easy cure for junk e-mail woes

Concern about the proliferation of unsolicited bulk e-mail, commonly referred to as spam, has been growing on campus in recent weeks. But because MIT does not monitor or censor e-mail, the volume of such mail will only continue to grow.

It is against MITnet Rules of Use for a member of the MIT community to use e-mail to broadcast messages to the MIT community. This rule is not based on etiquette alone but on the fact that such massive mailings degrade the operation of the system for all users.

Anyone who receives spam from an MIT address should forward the message to Stopit staff will notify the sender that such use of the mail system is inappropriate and against the MITnet Rules of Use.

However, most junk e-mail does not originate at MIT, and there is little that the Institute can do to prevent companies and individuals from advertising in this manner. It is very inexpensive for them to do so, and as long as they continue to get some positive responses, we can expect them to continue to use e-mail to advertise. People at MIT who receive spam shouldn't feel that they've been specifically targeted; there are many ways that companies or individuals can gather e-mail addresses.

To avoid receiving complaints, companies either forge the mail headers or use an address for one mailing only and then move on to another address and often another Internet service provider. When recipients try to respond to the mail and ask to be removed from the mailing list, the mail is returned saying there is no such user.

Since most straightforward techniques for filtering unwanted e-mail involve filtering messages based on the name or the address of the sender, the ease with which companies can obtain new valid or forged e-mail addresses also makes it difficult for individuals to filter out such mail.

MIT does not monitor or censor e-mail and therefore cannot prevent the flow of junk mail. To filter out all e-mail coming from outside vendors or marketing groups, Information Systems would have to make the assumption that no one at MIT wanted to receive such mail. We would in a sense be censoring the mail individuals received without their even knowing what mail we were censoring. This is not something that I/S wants to do.

When a particular mailing has been so large that it overloads our post office servers, I/S have been able to block more of it from reaching the campus. However, this tactic will work only for an individual mailing.

While there are currently some bills before Congress that would ban junk e-mail, such e-mail is not illegal today. In fact, this form of mail is protected by the First Amendment. Receiving junk mail is very annoying and we can expect the problem to get worse. The growing commercialization of the Internet and the fact that there is no direct charge for sending mass e-mails means that people will keep on getting spammed.

The simplest solution is the one you probably already use for your paper junk mail: toss it in the trash unread.

For more information on spam and what to do about it at MIT, see the web site at To see what others are doing about spam, checkout the web page for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail at CAUCE is a volunteer group that advocates a legislative solution to the problem of spam.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 30, 1998.

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