Have you noticed your inbox is lighter lately?

The FBI nailed Alan Ralsky.

Ralsky’s reaction? “I’m not a spammer. I’m a commercial e-mailer.”

In other news, Marion Berry doesn’t go to strip bars. He goes to erotic clubs.Ralsky, if you’re not familiar with him, is one of the more prolific spammers in the world. And while some people sympathize with him since sending spam seems to be the only way he can make a living, the fact is that spam hurts everyone. It wastes your time–the lost productivity dealing with spam has been valued at anywhere from $9 to $22 billion–and it hurts your ISP too.

I know someone who administers mail servers for one of the largest cable companies in the United States. The upgrades to its mail servers cost six figures when they have to do it. This past week he described the situation with spam and worms as “SETI@Home in a DDoS attack against mail.ispname.net.”

If you want to know why broadband Internet access doesn’t cost $5 a month, you can blame people like Ralsky.

Defenders say Ralsky didn’t break any laws. But according to various anti-spam laws, you disguising the origins of your mail is illegal, and Ralsky has been guilty of this. To me, this rings of jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. Another question to ask is whether Ralsky has hawked pornography to underage children and whether he has ever hawked prescription drugs. If he had set up a table on a streetcorner and done either of those things, he would have landed himself in jail. If it’s illegal on the streetcorner, it ought to be illegal online. Especially because if he were doing it on the streetcorner, he’s only using a small parcel of public land. When he does it online, he’s utilizing thousands of computers that don’t belong to him.

I was glad when thousands of people signed Ralsky up for every junk-mail list they could find. It told a lot about his character when he remained defiant afterward. Filling his mailbox with junk was wrong, yet he saw nothing wrong with filling out e-mail boxes and he continued to do so.

Someone else will rise to take his place, but it will take time to learn his tactics, and in the meantime, anti-spam tools will get better.

The reason spam works is because somebody buys stuff from it. It might be one out of a thousand, or one out of a million, depending on who you believe. But it doesn’t take much more effort to blast out 3 million messages than it takes to blast out 3 thousand. It’s an attractive business because someone who’s unable or unwilling to do other work can get started with little or no expense, using equipment he or she probably already owns. It’s safer than, say, trying to sell stuff on Ebay. If I list a big pile of stuff on Ebay and it doesn’t sell, I owe listing fees–probably around 30 cents–on each item that doesn’t sell. Plus I’m stuck with that item and out whatever I paid to get it. But if I blast out a bunch of spam and nobody bites, I haven’t really lost anything, except maybe my ISP suspending or discontinuing my service.

The courts need to make an example of Alan Ralsky. Meanwhile, the FBI needs to go find a few of the other big fish in this pond and do the same.

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