A history of email spam

There are many facts of life — universal truths that we need to accept and adapt to. The existence of email spam is one of them.

These days, there are all sorts of clever ways to ignore and remove the spam that clogs up our inboxes. From legislation to automation, email spam is easy to disregard, relegated to our junk boxes without a cursory glance.

But how did it all begin? Spam, junk and other unwanted emails are as old as email itself (possibly even older.) But it didn’t really take off until the 90s. Here, we take a closer look at the history of email spam.

What is spam?

Email spam has many definitions, with legal definitions varying from place to place. In general, email spam refers to unsolicited, unwanted messages which have been sent en masse via email. Anything sent repetitively, without prompting or to an onslaught of recipients are often spam.

There are different types of spam, too. The majority is usually commercial. Think an overabundance of ads. Or a mismanaged marketing ploy with purchased email lists. Or over-exuberant automated emails from unknown companies.

Others are phishing attempts. That is, attempts to gain sensitive data, spread computer viruses, or find victims to scam for money.

To understand the scope of the issue, 306.4 billion emails are sent per day. 55% of which is spam.

Once upon a time in the 1800s…

The obvious ancestry of spam includes junk mail and handwritten chain letters. But, even before emails, there may have been electronic spam, too. If you include any mass-transmitted electronic message, that is.

The first traces of electronically transmitted spam date to 1864. The message in question wasn’t, of course, sent by email, but rather by telegraph. It read as follows.

“Messrs. Gabriel, dentists, 27, Harley-street, Cavendish-square. Until October Messrs. Gabriel’s professional attendance at 27, Harley-street, will be 10 till 5.”

Even then, the mass sent message seems to have drawn ire, earning a complaint letter, published in the Times of London. Fortunately, telegraphs were costly to send, which likely had a throttling effect on pre-20th century spam.

The first spam message (1978)

Fast forward 112 years to the first recorded email spam message. In May 1978, a marketer called Gary Thuerk sent an email to 400 addresses on ARPANET. (The birthplace of email.) At the time, only 2600 email addresses existed.

Though the mass-sent message wasn’t called spam at the time, it earned all the scorn you’d expect from email spam. Complaints were sent and an ARPANET representative made Thuerk promise not to do it again.

Rather than being the father of email spam, Thuerk likes to think of himself as the father of e-marketing. (The difference is that spam is unwanted by almost all those that see it. Email marketing only involves sending to those that have expressed an interest in your brand or information.)

An annoying prank

Next in the history of email spam comes its introduction to games.

A MUD – multi-user dungeon game – combines a host of elements from role-playing games, interactive fiction, player vs player and online chat. They were text-based fantasy worlds where you could interact with people online. (Or through networked computers, before the internet was a thing.)

And, earning it a place in the history of spam, players would spam each other in the chat, filling their inbox with repetitive messages.

It’s easy to imagine how frustrating it could be. You’re absorbed in a shared fantasy world, only for someone to break your immersion by interrupting the narrative with nonsense. Soon, the whole conversation gets replaced by random song lyrics or gibberish.

Commonly, this sort of spam would literally be the word ‘spam’ repeated over and over, in mimicry of a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch. In fact, this has a close relation to the birth of the term ‘spam’ to mean unsolicited messages.

Birth of a term

It’s thought that the term ‘spam’ to mean unsolicited emails comes from the reference to the (somewhat unpopular) canned meat, by way of the above-mentioned Monty Python sketch.

In the sketch, a person that doesn’t like spam is repeatedly offered it from a menu. Prompting a group of Vikings to sing a song which consists of the words ‘spam’, ‘lovely spam’ and ‘wonderful spam’ over and over. With the lyrics being easy to remember, they were easy to ‘spam’ others with.

You might even say that email spam started life as a Monty Python meme.

The first recorded use of the term ‘spamming’ to refer to the bulk sending of unsolicited messages came in 1993. It was applied to an incident that happened on USENET — a precursor to the internet.

Owing to a bug in his software, Richard Depew accidentally posted 200+ messages to a single group; ‘news.admin.policy’. Someone later referred to the incident as spamming, and thus coined the term. A notable moment for the history of email spam.

More USENET spam

This wasn’t the only part that USENET played in the history of email spam. There were two key incidents in the following year (1994).

In January, there was the first, large scale, deliberate USENET unsolicited message sent. It was crossposted into every available newsgroup and came with the subject line “Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon”.

A few months later saw the first commercial USENET spam. Later referred to as the Green Card Spam incident 1994, the event involved two Phoenix lawyers, Canter and Siegal. They hired a programmer to share their “Green Card Lottery- Final One?” message to as many newsgroups as possible.

MAPS: The Mail Abuse Prevention System

An answer to unwanted messages came in 1996. This was when software developers Dave Rand and Paul Vixie introduced the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or ‘MAPS’.

MAPS was a DNS blacklist. The two kept a list of IP addresses known to have sent email spam. (Or that had displayed other objectionable behaviour.) This list became known as the Real-time Blackhole List (RBL).

This list was then used to block any messages from the offending IP addresses. It wouldn’t stop all spam, and was primitive compared to today’s spam filters. But MAPS was an early answer to a growing problem, earning it a mention in the history of email spam.

Dictionary entry (1998)

Finally, following the growth of the use of the term, ‘spam’ was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Before this point, the only entry for spam referenced the trademarked food product. The new definition dealt with the new spam — unsolicited messages.

“Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.”

Before this, the act of spamming would hold names such as ‘flooding’ or ‘trashing’.

Something had to change…

The lead up to the millennium saw the creation and rapid growth of spam. It was a problem that was only accelerating.

And, it’s worth noting, this was even more annoying at the start of the 2000s than it is today. For a start, spam filters were still juvenile. But also, slower internet speeds back then made spam a nightmare. A hefty spam email could take ages to load or freeze your system, and cause all sorts of chaos.

Something had to change, and change it did. The turn of the millennium saw us start to fight back against email spam.

The EU directive 2002

The fight against email spam started fully in 2002. This was when the EU released the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive. This is otherwise known as the ePrivacy Directive, or ePD.

Article 13 in this directive was all about dealing with commercial email spam. The directive made it illegal to send unsolicited marketing communications without first getting prior agreement from the recipient. In other words, the directive established an opt-in rule.

The directive allowed businesses to send commercial emails provided the customers they emailed had a chance to reject that communication. The exceptions to this rule included existing customers and the marketing of similar products and services.

The CAN-SPAM act of 2003

Not long after the EU directive came the USA’s answer to email spam. It came in the form of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

A backronym for ‘Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing’, the name of the act is a play on words. It references the canned meat known as spam, as well as refers to the action of ‘canning’ (or putting an end to) something.

The CAN-SPAM act met some criticism for failing to prohibit many types of email spam. It didn’t prohibit businesses from sending unsolicited commercial emails, for instance. In some cases, it impeded victims of spam from seeking reparations, by invalidating other laws that would have proved more helpful.

Growth of tools to fight spam

Over the next two decades, we would continue to develop tools to help defend our inboxes from email spam.

For instance, spam filters have grown in type and efficacy. Some spam filters come as part of an email service offering, and we can customise our own filters too. Nowadays, we can filter emails automatically by blocking blacklisted senders, keywords in headers or email content, and based on language.

There’s also been a rise in automation software, which helps with email management. For instance, our own automation software started as Email2DB in 2004. It’s since grown in scope and ability. With automation, you can set rule to automatically sort your emails, find only the important ones, set up auto-replies, and extract key data. So, there’s no need to deal with email spam.

Most recently, in 2018, we’ve seen the introduction of GDPR. GDPR concerns the use and protection of personal data — and in part, that includes data shared in emails, the need for active consent and the right to be forgotten. All of this works to further inhibit email spam.

Spam: a core part of email’s history

What today is a minor nuisance for most of us was once a major hurdle for email technology to overcome. Still, the history of spam is a key event in not only the history of email, but online communication. It filled chatrooms, forums, and games.

We’re still fighting off email spam today. But now we have filters, automation and legislation behind us. The question is, will we ever stop receiving email spam completely?

Useful links

The 50-year history of email

The first electronic mail reactions

What is an email parser and why do I need one?