Question: What is spam?

Answer: Spam, as well as being a trademark of the Hormel Foods Corporation for deviled luncheon meat spread, is a term that describes mass, unsolicited advertising or soliciting through e-mail, Usenet postings or other online means. The term is believed to have derived from the Monty Python comedy sketch regarding a restaurant in which every item on the menu includes Spam. In the sketch, a waitress recites the menu to a customer, "Spam" is repeated over and over. Similarly, a spam posting to a number of Usenet newsgroups may appear repeatedly to persons who subscribe to multiple newsgroups.

Although online advertising has become generally accepted on the Internet, spam is considered a serious violation of Internet etiquette ("Netiquette"). Some of the best known examples of spamming have been conducted by Canter and Seigel of Arizona. In 1994, Canter and Seigel allegedly spammed almost 6,000 newsgroups with an advertisement to assist persons to enter a immigration green card lottery. So many complaints were sent in response to the 1994 spamming that Canter and Seigel's Internet service provider's server crashed several times, and the provider terminated Canter and Seigel's service.

In some cases spam recipients have organized send of large quantities of reply e-mail messages to the spamming party. In other cases, individual recipients have created the same effect with programs that send repeated e-mails to the spamming party.

Notwithstanding the online community's unwelcome response to spam, the quantity of spamming has increased dramatically. America Online, for example, stated that it receives in excess of 700,000 messages per day to America Online subscribers from companies who specialize in spamming. In response, America Online and some other online services have implemented filters to reject messages from certain Internet addresses or messages which meet other criteria of spam. Cyber Productions Inc., however, recently obtained a temporary restraining order preventing America Online from blocking its mass messaging to America Online users pending a trial scheduled for November, 1996. If the trial proceeds, Cyber Productions Inc. v. America Online Inc. (E.D. Penn.) may be one of the first trial court cases to address the limits of sending and blocking spam messages.

Jim Black can be reached at

© James R. Black 1997
applet by New Media Marketing Lab at Sun Microsystems, Inc.