Little did the Monty Python “gang” realize how famous, or infamous might be a better description, that the word “spam” would become! I am sure that if you mentioned the word in conversation today most people would immediately think of its use in the context of email and not the original meat product. It is interesting how the electronic communications world has mimicked our physical world. We worry more and more about the growing ubiquity of “viruses” that are becoming more difficult to deal with when it comes to attacks on our physical bodies. In the same manner “malware” in all its insidious forms is an increasing problem in the electronic world. The Medieval practice of “hanging, drawing and quartering” would be too good for the perpetrators and would little doubt have been their fate in those days. It costs us billions every year to deal with these at best misguided, and at worst “twisted”, people. Their considerable talents are self-evident. If only we could turn them to good rather mal intent!!
Unwittingly we have painted ourselves into a “corner” when it comes to our very existence. I won’t get into the long and slightly fruitless debate about “global warming” and its possible contribution. However, there is no question that our very existence today is delicately balanced. Recently we had some friends over for dinner and we spent the best part of 2 hours discussing what we remember of our early childhood in England and how it compares to today. The basic conclusion was that people had to be more self-reliant and therefore more self-determining than today. I remember well spending the school summer breaks with some of my cousins in a little cottage with no running water, no power or indoor “facilities”. Nobody seemed to care. That was what they were used to and all that they could afford. Mind you the trip to the “facilities” at the bottom of the garden in the middle of the night whilst trying to avoid the nettles doesn’t altogether bring back pleasant memories! There were several comments along the lines of “the good old days”. I strongly suspect that one generation after another might say that in some regard. I am not so sure all things considered that it was indeed “the good old days” but reminiscing can be delusional fun.
Pardon the slight diversion and reminiscing but in some ways it is relevant to the weaknesses that we have now built into our existence. Today we are very dependent upon email for our personal and business communications. It has become as ubiquitous as the phone and television. As much as we might lament the temporary loss of watching television (unfortunately I am something of a TV junkie – inventing the remote control did more to ruin my health than anything else :)) and I can think of a lot of people who would definitely miss temporary loss of the phone (my wife for one). However, with the possible exception of exposing the weaknesses of the cell phone system and the push towards VOIP or internet telephony in general, TV and the phone system are relatively “bullet proof” (power supply not withstanding). The email system on the other hand is poised for collapse unless we can do something about “spam”. For all the cost and irritation that “malware” presents we try to keep it in check by constant vigilance and research in much the same way as we try to protect our physical bodies from “viruses”. On the other hand “spam” is the cancer of the email system. If we don’t deal with it effectively (spam filtering) it drives us all crazy and clogs up the email system as a whole and if we take the ultra cautious route we eliminate legitimate, possibly vital, email on a regular basis.
Increasingly I see the effects at the ISP level. One ISP “blacklists” another and they in turn “blacklist” the original if they won’t remove the blocking because it is a retaliatory reaction to how it is affecting their business. In other words they blame each other. It is not too difficult to see where the ultimate conclusion could be especially if we are dealing with major ISP’s or companies. Even if the blocking is eventually removed it can take several days and increasing occupy valuable resources that could be directed to more productive endeavours. Recently, the ISP that VANTUG uses for email was “blacklisted” for the third time by the same company. Fortunately, this time it didn’t take long to fix but the first time it took 2 weeks and was going to be fixed “tomorrow” every day we asked. My daughter-in-law is also experiencing similar problems with some of her clients being unable to email her. We recently tracked down the problem. It turns out that because some of the DNS entries were not correctly set up that the email was assumed to be “spam” and we all know what “assume” means – makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”! For VANTUG it is a “royal” pain. For my daughter-in-law it is a potential loss of business and livelihood. I am sure such incidents are far from isolated. I even once experienced my email from Microsoft being blocked because they had been temporarily “blacklisted”.
Now it would be easy to point the finger at the ISP’s or companies running the email systems but I do have sympathy for the problem that they are struggling to deal with. DNS problems apart, how do you tell legitimate email from “spam”. I realize that we are trying to get more sophisticated in analyzing the email itself and where it originated to try and make those distinctions but at the moment I really feel that we are losing the battle. For example, when I send out an email “blast” to nearly 1000 VANTUG members how does the sending ISP know what it is or if a large proportion of the email goes to one particular ISP how do they know what it is? They are increasingly dependent upon “filtering” software which is far from perfect or people reporting that someone is spamming them. So is VANTUG part of the problem or a victim of the problem? I have to say that it could be a little of each but what choice do we, or many others in the same situation, have? Most of the time things work just fine but on those occasions where it doesn’t I have no easy way of knowing who received the email and who didn’t. What should I do? Just forget about it (not too good if it’s an important email about a meeting for example) or send it out again to nearly a 1000 members, many of whom are now probably beginning to wonder why they get repeat emails filling up their inbox, and risk adding to the problem! It is the classical, “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation.
In the case of an IT Pro User Group you might ask why we don’t run our own email server to help the problem? It sounds a simple proposition but even if we could afford the hardware (or better still some generous sponsor gave us the hardware), had the software (not really a problem) and the expertise (which we have in plenty) the issue really is operation and maintenance. To be dependent upon an individual member to “support” us can be fraught with difficulties. We used to have that situation for both email and our website but it was a constant problem and in many respects unfair to blame and pester individual members who often had other priorities that they must deal with. I have little doubt that there are User Groups out there who are saying that they don’t have any such problems. My cautionary words to you are that “people move on and priorities change”. Running a User group these days is like running a small business and such an arrangement is not a good business decision.
So what does all of this amount to? In my opinion the email system is in serious danger of collapse unless we can effectively do something about “spam” and the people who perpetrate it. It isn’t simply a case of putting in “bigger pipes” to cater for all of the useless email traffic. Unfortunately, some of my wife’s ill-informed friends contribute to that on a regular basis anyway. Email is “free” don’t you know! That’s not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is ridding ourselves of a “cancer” which is rapidly becoming a blight on our very existence.