Spam, a necessary evil

Spam: a shadow history of the Internet

BOOK REVIEW  by Jean-Christophe PLANTIN  •  Published 30.09.2013  •  Updated 08.10.2013
Finn Brunton analyses the ambivalent role of spamming, from illegal activities to revealing things about the Internet’s infrastructure.

Title: Spam: a shadow history of the Internet

Author(s): Finn Brunton

Editor(s): MIT Press

Release Date: 01.03.2013


Up until it was annexed by Morocco in 1956, the city of Tangiers had the status of International Zone, which had given it a relatively high level of legal autonomy. Thanks to its status, the city, during this time, became a hub for spying and various kinds of international trafficking. But Tangiers also attracted artists, from writers who were part of the beat generationto rock’n’roll bands in the 1960s, who enjoyed the city’s laidback attitudes to sex, drugs and religion.
This duality is also found in the spam industry, which is involved on the one hand in a plethora of illegal online activities, while at the same time forming a breeding ground for freeing creativity and testing the limits of the properties of the Internet’s infrastructure: this is the hypothesis defended by Finn Brunton, Assistant Professorat New York University, in his book Spam: a shadow history of the Internet. It is a massive phenomenon: in 2006, 85% of e-mails sent throughout the world were spams (p. 153); and it forms a starting point for reconstructing the history of how the Internet’s infrastructure was set up and how it changed. Given the need to constantly adapt to get over technical and legal obstacles that it comes up against, the spam industry uses all sorts of network resources to achieve its ends: “Spammers will fill every available channel to capacity, use every exploitable resource: all the squandered central processing unit cycles as a computer sits on a desk while its owner is at lunch, or toiling over some Word document, can now be put to use sending polymorphic spam messages — hundreds a minute and each one unique” (p. 200). It is therefore this intelligence of the spammers and their relationship with the Internet’s infrastructure that Finn Brunton aims to describe, recounting three major periods, from the appearance of spamming within limited communities (for example Usenet) to large scale spamming via e-mail (such as for the sale of Viagra), ending up with spamming as practised in the search engine era.

Studying spammers and spam-recipients symmetrically

Finn Brunton places the origin of spamming within the first online communities such as Usenet or The WELL, both limited in scope and based on shared interests. He retraces the steps of the adventure of the first spam, sent in 1971 to a discussion group of engineers called the MSGGROUP, and took the form of a message against the Vietnam war. The author was severely reprimanded by the administrator of the group for monopolising the channel to spread a personal opinion. As a “negative case of the logic of the organisation in action” (p. 9), the spam constituted a breaking of the social bond, smashing the community of common interests, and attacking it with personal points of view.
The originality of Brunton’s approach lies in his looking both at how the spam industry operates and at the reaction of people and communities who get spammed. What he called the “charivari” refers to the sometimes violent reaction towards spamming. This collective punishment has taken on various forms throughout the different periods of spamming, such as the setting up of filters, banishing the guilty party from the community, and even legal action.
In 1994, on several Usenet forums, two lawyers automatically posted advertisements for their legal services to help people obtain a green card. This act of spamming provoked a reaction that matched the community members’ anger: the huge amount of complaints by e-mail crashed the Usenet servers; the fax machines and private e-mails of the lawyers were flooded with a vast numbers of automatically generated emails; a program was even set up to leave forty messages every night on their answering machines. This charivari demonstrates the narcissistic pleasure that a group enjoys by sending messages as punishment, which was every bit as virulent as contemporary retaliation by the Anonymous.
Taking a broader view, this anecdote also reveals changes that have taken place within the Internet. Indeed, during the same period, it has gone from having the status of a specific sub-culture – the playground of academics taking part in expert forums with a high social dimension and the relative absence of formal rules – to Internet for the masses, interwoven with a huge diversity of personally and potentially contradictory interests. To use the words of Ferdinand Tönnies, this move from the Gemeinschaft [community] to Gesellschaft [society] has taken place in fits and starts, whereby characters such as the two lawyers cited above “forced the hand” of this “vulnerable medium” (p. 61), namely Internet, with the aim of broadening its usages. The fact that they raised the issue of freedom of expression and freedom of trade when faced with the retaliation they underwent is illustrative of this change: they relied on their experience to lay claim to a kind of Internet that no longer falls within the diktat of a minority.
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Reaching the “fifteen idiots”

Since e-mail has become a widespread form of technology used on a daily basis by the public, spamming has started to be used on a larger scale. The success of this industry is based on a principle whose simplicity is formidably effective: spammers make their money from the “fifteen most stupid or most perverse people” in a million (p. 153). The same applies to the 4-1-9 fraud, or the Nigerian scam: millions are sent, but all it takes is a handful of people to reply for the business to be profitable.
The large scale spamming industry comes with a multitude of mafia-type practices. It complements and sustains botnet networks, whereby computers are turned into zombies after being infected with a computer worm”: computers controlled like this form a network for sending spams on a large scale or for threatening a denial-of-service attack (DoS). Spamming has assisted the illegal selling of bank detail lists, leading to the dark side of the Internet.
As search engines became widely used as the first port of call for accessing online information, the aims of spammers changed: now that PageRank dominates, the aim of spamming is to make use of the fact that search engines classify websites hierarchically, and so spams are being generated by machines for machines. Spamming practices are changing once more: “link farms aim, for example, to take advantage of the algorithmic properties of Google’s information classification by artificially creating a large number of incoming links towards a webpage to raise its ranking. These practices are, however, quickly spotted and halted by regularly updating the PageRank algorithm. This creates a huge number of constantly new challenges for spammers who want to play with the rules of the economy of visibility.
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Studying the “digital natives”

Finn Brunton is an author who knows how to keep the readers on the edge of their seats, and who shows the reader, using the techniques of a thriller, the shadowy milieu of the Tangiers of the Internet. However, the reader can occasionally feel his great fascination for this research subject peeping through. This fascination sometimes leads to his exaggerating the heuristic virtues of spamming. We may readily agree that spamming serves as an original way of learning about the Internet’s infrastructure, but can it really at the same time shine light on today’s attention economy, the separation between computation and human action and how the Internet went from a group of peers to becoming a mass phenomenon? What is more, this broad research programme based on spamming led to his including features more akin to trolling than spamming, whereas a more refined separation of these online behaviours would have been more enlightening.
Despite these few drawbacks, Spam: a shadow history of the Internet is a brilliant exercise in analysing “digital natives”[+] NoteRichard ROGERS, The End of the Virtual: Digital Methods, Amsterdam University Press, 2009.X [1], which provides us with an alternative way of looking at the history of the Internet. It also intelligently illustrates the collection of which it is part (“Infrastructures series” MIT Press) by way of an original and informative example for studying infrastructures, a trend that we would like to see developing more in France.
Translated from the French by Peter Moss
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  • 1. Richard ROGERS, The End of the Virtual: Digital Methods, Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

Book title: Spam: a shadow history of the Internet
Author(s): Finn Brunton
Editor(s): MIT Press
Release Date: 01/03/2013
N° ISBN: 9780262018876
Number of pages: 304 pages

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