Lovely, Wonderful Spam!

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 6, 2005

3 Min Read

We may move on to use different collaborative technologies, from telephone to facsimile, from e-mail to instant messaging to SMS, but one thing is certain: like death and taxes, spam is always sure to follow.

Junk faxes have been illegal since 1991 thanks to FCC regulations and federal law.  Frankly, I hadn't noticed a decrease since my office hasn't had a proper fax machine since 1991.  Basex started using computer-based faxing at that time with the NetSatisFAXtion product from Intel.  That morphed into a NetSatisFAXtion server version (the original system acted more like a client), and then we went for a more integrated approach and deployed a Domino fax server within our Notes/Domino messaging and collaboration environment.  As the need for telecopier transmissions waned, we didn't even upgrade the fax server.  Instead, our IT manager purchased a yearly subscription to eFax and the occasional fax arrives (probably one per week) in an administrative assistant's e-mail box and gets forwarded via e-mail to the addressee.  I'm told we've received two junk faxes over the past six months. 

This past summer, new legislation, the Junk Fax Prevention Act, created a loophole that echoes CAN-SPAM: businesses are allowed to send unsolicited commercial fax messages to anyone with whom they have an "established business relationship."  Essentially, it permits any business you call or visit the right to send you a fax.   Of course, I'd venture to say that most unsolicited faxes don't come from these businesses. 

Almost two years ago, we calculated the impact of spam e-mail on business in the U.S. at $20 billion p.a.  (see “Spam E-mail and Its Impact on IT Productivity and Spending”, Basex, January 2004).  The term "spam" was first applied to unsolicited commercial e-mail in 1994, when two lawyers (Canter and Siegel) posted a message advertising their services for an upcoming immigration lottery to every single newsgroup on USENET.  Users called this action a "spam" and the term stuck.  Spam was used earlier within the MUD environment to denote one of several activities, including overwhelming a chat session by posting a large file.

Unlike spam e-mail, junk faxes have been illegal for quite some time.  The definition of a facsimile transmission in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991 is fairly broad in scope, and could be interpreted to include any computer with a printer and modem.  By that definition, a spam e-mail message might be considered illegal by means of the TCPA.  (Were that the case, then Section 6.d.1.B. would require a telephone number to be included in each one. Some wags might counter that the header information is equivalent, but that is frequently forged.)

This week, a published report coming out of Pennsylvania State University acknowledges that malicious hackers could take down mobile phone networks by inundating SMS with the equivalent of spam.  This could disable the voice network as well, and the attack could originate via the Internet, with the equivalent of a denial-of-service attack from one or more computer spewing out text messages.

So, dear reader, I suggest to you a retronym (a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new class of things, such as a corded phone, the need for which came about due to the cordless phone): the spam fax.  Let's face it, spam is spam is spam.  Even the folks at Hormel have given up trying to stop the usage.  Let's make it easy for people who don't even have a fax machine to know what we're talking about.

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