The history of spam starts in 1864, over a hundred years before the Internet, with a telegram sent en masse to a number of British politicians. In a prescient sign of things to come, the telegram was an advertisement for teeth whitening.
The first example of an unsolicited email dates back to 1978 and the precursor to the Internet—ARPANET. This proto-Internet spam was an advertisement for a new model of computer from Digital Equipment Corporation. It worked—people bought the computers.
By the 1980s, people came together on regional online communities, called bulletin boards (BBSes), run by hobbyists on their home servers. On a typical BBS, users were able to share files, post notices, and exchange messages. During heated online exchanges, users would type the word “spam” over and over again to drown each other out. This was done in reference to a Monty Python sketch from 1970 in which a husband and wife eating at a working-class café find that almost everything on the menu contains Spam. As the wife argues with the waitress over the preponderance of Spam on the menu, a chorus of Vikings drowns out the conversation with a song about Spam.
The use of the word “spam” in this context, i.e. loud annoying messaging, caught on—to the chagrin of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam.
Over on Usenet, a precursor to the Internet that functions much like today’s Internet forums, “spam” was used to refer to excessive multiple posting across multiple forums and threads. The earliest Usenet spam included a fundamentalist religious tract, a political rant about the Armenian Genocide, and an advertisement for green card legal services.
Spam didn’t start in earnest until the rise of the Internet and instant email communication in the early 90s. Spam reached epidemic proportions with hundreds of billions of spam emails overwhelming our inboxes.
In 1999, Melissa, the first virus that spread via macro-enabled Word documents attached to emails was let loose upon the digital world. It spread by ransacking victims’ contact lists and spamming itself to everyone the victim knew. In the end, Melissa caused $80 million in damages, according to the FBI.
Without any anti-spam legislation in place, professional spammers rose to prominence, including the self-proclaimed “Spam King” Sanford Wallace. True to his nickname, Wallace was at one time the biggest sender of spam emails and social media spam on sites like Myspace and Facebook.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that governments around the world started to get serious about regulating spam. Notably, all member countries of the European Union and the United Kingdom have laws in place that restrict spam. Likewise, in 2003 the United States put a set of laws in place cheekily called the CAN-SPAM Act (once again, Hormel just can’t get a break). These laws, in the US and abroad, place restrictions on the content, sending behavior, and unsubscribe compliance of all email.
At the same time, top email providers Microsoft and Google worked hard to improve spam filtering technology. Bill Gates famously predicted spam would disappear by 2006.
Under these laws a rogue’s gallery of spammers, including the Spam King, were arrested, prosecuted and jailed for foisting penny stocks, fake watches and questionable drugs on us. In 2016 Sanford Wallace was convicted, sentenced to 30 months in prison, and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands in restitution for sending millions of spam messages on Facebook.
And yet spam is still a thing. Sorry, Bill.
In spite of the best efforts of legislators, law enforcement and technology companies, we’re still fighting the scourge of unwanted, malicious email and other digital communication. The fact of the matter is that the business of spam requires little effort on behalf of spammers, few spammers actually go to jail, and there’s lots of money to be made.
In a joint study on spam between University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Diego, researchers observed a zombie botnet in action and found the operators of the botnet sent out 350 million emails over the course of a month. Out of these hundreds of millions of emails the spammers netted 28 sales. This a conversion rate of .00001 percent. That being said, if the spammers continued to send out spam at that rate, they would pull in 3.5 million dollars in the span of a year.
So what, exactly, are the types of spam that continue to fill our inboxes to the brim and what can we do about it?