Spam, Spam, Spam...

CobraBoy (
Mon, 20 Apr 1998 07:29:52 -0700

[CC'd to nanap, and various relevant mailing lists.]

The Spam Cancel Moratorium on Usenet been on almost two weeks, and
it's past time for some serious analysis discussion of what happened,
what it means, and what we do with what we've learned.

We had originally anticipated that the spam cancel moratorium would
be in effect for two weeks (ending tomorrow (er, today ;-)), however,
events as they occured may make the idea of "ending" it moot.

The idea behind the Moratorium is simple: 200,000 cancels per day
and climbing is getting absurd and very damaging all by itself.

Too many ISPs (and users for that matter) are relying on spam
cancellation (and the despammers themselves) to keep their discussion
areas viable. It has always been my (and I believe all other
despammers) intent to put ourselves out of business. Spam cancellation
was supposed to be a temporary measure until ISPs and other sites got
their act together and maintained the viability of Usenet on their

This wasn't happening in the status quo prior to the moratorium. The
situation wasn't improving, worse, the "temporary solution" is
becoming an enormous problem all of its own.

Hence, something had to be done to shake up all of Usenet, and getting
systems to start seriously looking at ways to solve things.

Because sooner or later, all of the despammers are going to give up
permanently. The cost of despamming (both in required resources and
personal commitment) is climbing fast to ridiculous heights. There is
also considerable frustration because there still is no end in sight.

So, on April 3, most of us simply stopped issuing spam cancels.
We still generated NoCeM notices (which are not a particularly
good solution either, but one of the best currently available),
and continued complaining about spam - as everyone should who
cares about the continued viability of Usenet. It was time
to try to force some evolution.

I hope that this posting can generate some serious discussion
about where we go from here.

I should point out that this posting is my own observations and
conclusions, rather than a "group statement". However, I think it's
fair to say that most of the despammers who participated in the
discussions leading to the moratorium agree with much of this.

What happened:

1) Spam volumes jumped substantially. Systems without filtering
of kind have reported traffic volumes going up by 20% or
even as high as 400%.

2) As one datapoint, the detection rate on my spam cancelling
system went up by a factor of 20 and has stayed there for
two weeks.

Similarly, systems with good filtering (such as SpamHippo
or CleanFeed) have reported substantial jumps in local
reject rates.

This demonstrates very clearly the effectiveness of the
pre-Moratorium despammers of cancelling articles before they
arrived on many systems.

3) A number of systems overflowed, including one of mine, and
one of Joe Greco's. There are all sorts of rumours flying
around that "Australia is down", "Usenet backbones in Europe
have crashed", " there are loading problems at UUNET", and
we've seen many reliable reports of individual systems
grinding to a halt (including major ones such as one of
MCI's even after implementing a 6 hour expiration on alt

Going by the fairly reliable statistic of Usenet
consisting of 40% spam, 40% spam cancels, and 20% content,
we immediately see that an entirely unfiltered system
would be forced to store three times as many articles if
the cancels weren't sent. In other words, tripling
the storage requirement of a news server.

It's not quite that simple, of course, because the cancels
aren't occupying space, but as a significant portion of
spam is vastly larger than the cancels, and most systems
are expiring cancels _very_ quickly, the effect is fairly

Factoring in Cosmo's 24 hour cancel delay, we see that
the "theoretical unfiltered server" would be required to
store triple the normal daily volume of articles received
for one day, and approximately double the normal daily volume
of articles (using a ballpark figure of Cosmo getting 50%
of spam) for each additional day of retention the server

It's rather difficult to tell whether any one of these system
failures are directly a result of the Moratorium. Few system
administrators will publicly announce that their servers have
failed to meet the test. But some did so.

However, with increased storage requirements such as this,
it is bound to have been a factor. It certainly was on
ours. Over 500Mb in alt.mag.playboy in one day, where
something like 75-100Mb is more normal pre-moratorium. We
only get 6,000 groups and we have a 13Gb spool, but, I still
have to expire alt in one day now. This is only on the
anti-spam server. Our reader servers have filtering, and
didn't seem to see any big effects.

4) Many systems report having to drastically decrease expiration
times. In some cases retention of articles were shortened to
day or even less (MCI to 6 hours in alt) to cope with
increased storage requirements. Other systems had to
increase the frequency of expiration invocations. One had
to resort to hourly emergency expirations.

5) We're hearing many reports of systems implementing filters,
including major systems such as Digex, and mid-tier
ISPs taking feeds from MCI. There are also reports of jumps in
the retrieval of spam filtering software from their various
web repositories. This was one of the main goals of the
Moratorium, and is most heartening.

[Coincidentally, AOL's filtering system made it's long
awaited debut. While they're not removing spam from
their systems, similarly to Dejanews, they're at least
providing their users with a choice to see spam or not.
Their spam detection is at least in part via NoCeM.
I say "coincidentally", because this had been in the
works for quite some time, and is clearly not a result
of the moratorium. But the timing was most opportune ;-)]

6) Visible spam differences....

We knew ahead of time that the vast majority of spam (around
90-95%) appears in alt.* sex-related groups. These are the
very groups that most people don't read, or those that do,
won't admit to it publicly ;-) Furthermore, many systems
(perhaps even a majority) don't receive these groups at all,
so their users won't see much difference.

So, there weren't huge numbers of users complaining about
spam volumes. There were many. But, a somewhat disappointing

Furthermore, many users are on systems that are already
filtering (such as Netcom, Zippo/Newsguy, Mindspring etc.),
without even knowing it. These systems are already acting
responsibly, and were never the target of the moratorium.

One prime example of a group where the difference is
obvious: alt.sexual.abuse.recovery. Prior to the
moratorium, at most times, you'd be hard pressed to find
more than one or two spam articles there per day. During
the moratorium, a typical day would have 100 postings, 95 of
which were spams (usually pornographic pictures).

7) Cosmo. Cosmo Roadkill is presently responsible for
approximately 50% of all Usenet spam cancels. Much has been
made about the fact that Cosmo decided to not participate in
the moratorium the same way as the rest of us. What he did
do was to delay the propagation of his cancels for 24 hours.
Hence, all spam would survive on a server for 24 hours, and
approximately 50% would disappear afterwards.

This still served the purpose of the Moratorium. We're
certain that the effects would have been a lot more
pronounced if he had simply ceased cancelling altogether.
However, the effects are incontrovertible anyways.

We had considered the possibility of Cosmo not particpating
at all prior to the April 3 Moratorium commencement, because
he was not responding to our queries. The concensus was to
continue regardless.

The most significant effect of Cosmo's partial
participation was to confuse people (especially the media -
some media really are confused. Including the one saying
"The Moratorium Failed!", citing as proof Demon didn't see
an increase in _email_ spam. Sigh... At least Brock Meeks
has reversed his position on the Smith Bill, so at least
there are at least some signs of intelligence out in
medialand ;-)

[To be fair, most reporting of the Moratorium was reasonable.]

8) Our fellow despammers: many major despammers have already stated
their intention to not resume issuing cancels, at least

What We've Learned / What Next:

1) More systems than we thought were already filtering, or were
otherwise less affected by spam than anticipated. Still,
many major systems had serious problems - we hope they've
learned something from this and are looking more seriously
at filtering.

2) Systems _do_ take notice of these things. The increased
deployment of, and interest in, filtering is clear.

3) This has heightened interest in evolving Usenet itself,
to things like the Usenet 2 project. This sort of thing
is slow to grow, issuing cancels and propping up Usenet 1
simply discourages it from growing fast.

4) People don't complain much about deluges of spam in alt,
except in some limited areas. I believe that this proves
several things:

a) Most of alt is hopelessly doomed and is overrun
by spam. We've lost that battle, and it's probably
no longer worth trying to prop up. This idea
was first posited a few years ago. I think we have
the proof now.

b) Our efforts in alt would probably be better spent trying
to rescue salvagable groups (such as
alt.sexual.abuse.recovery) and put them on firmer
footing - either by migration to some other hierarchy
(at the same time removing the three consecutive letters
"s", "e" and "x" from it's name), or by moderation.

c) The existing alt hierarchy will simply die off as more
and more sites decide that they can no longer afford to
propagate it. Whole countries have already done this.
Issuing 100s of thousands of cancels per day for spams
in alt are simply prolonging the agony.

Alt is dead, it's time to quit flogging the corpse.

There are still many viable pockets of discourse in alt. These
groups should start considering when whole networks of systems
start dropping alt in-toto, and thinking about moving to a
better neighborhood.

4) There really isn't a lot of spam in non-alt groups (except in
some regionals and*). This isn't a surprise -
we already knew this.

Many (or perhaps most) regionals are already better monitored
by local administrators than we can possibly do. Many have
implemented considerably stricter rules than we apply.
They need relatively little help from us.

The volume of spam in the mainstream global groups (such as
the big 8) is perhaps small enough to not currently warrant
active spam cancellation.

Some personal (possibly widely shared) conclusions:

We went into the moratorium knowing that there were four
possible outcomes:

1) Nothing happens. Obviously, our services aren't
required, and we should stop. We look silly, need
to disappear quietly, but still Usenet benefits.

This didn't happen.

2) Something happens, but, the results are so confused
that no sense can be made of it. This is the outcome
that I really dreaded, because this whole exercise
would have been a waste of effort.

Fortunately, this didn't happen.

3) Usenet starts rapidly going downhill, and there's no
sign of anything evolving to fill the gap. If this
happens, Usenet 1 is doomed, and it would be far better
that we simply stop, quit prolonging the agony, and
stop wasting everyone's time.

This didn't happen either - we're seeing greatly heightened
deployment and interest in filtering, and would expect to
see more work and committment towards things like Usenet 2.

4) Usenet starts going downhill, but things start to happen
to counteract it. The situation should continue to be
monitored, but, it's possible that cancels can be eased
up on, and/or, periodically resumed to continue the evolutionary
pressure yet still give systems some breathing room to deploy

I think it's pretty clear that this did happen, and will
continue to happen.

As for continued spam cancelling:

I think it's fair to say that the moratorium is effectively over
as of now. This was our planned restart date...

Many major despammers have indicated that they will not be
resuming - at least temporarily. Thus, it's not clear that the
volume of spam cancels will increase much.

It's probably best that regional newsgroup enforcement resume
immediately. It's done on a somewhat different basis than global
despamming, and is more effective in their own areas than we could
ever be.

Cosmo will probably eliminate his delay. This will certainly
be noticable. I would hope that he would continue to have the
delay at his disposal, so as situations warrant, he might
reintroduce it to apply further evolutionary pressure as necessary.

People with groups in alt that they care about should immediately
start considering moving somewhere else. The death of alt is
obviously coming. It's time to save what you can. But we do
have to be prepared for when the spammers, like the rats that
they are ;-), desert that ship, and try to infest the rest of
Usenet. I would suggest that merely moderating your group
may not be good enough - move now, it's going to be safer in the
long run.

This is what I will be doing:

I encourage other despammers to chime in with what they plan to do.

I will turn despamming back on for the regional that I am involved with.

I will be leaving mainstream despamming off for the immediate
future. It's not helping in alt, and it's not really necessary
elsewhere at this moment.

I will be turning my NoCeMs off for alt groups - possibly all
alt groups. Alt is gone, it's time to quit wasting bandwidth
in yet more futile effort to save it.

ISP and user notifications will continue.

I will continue to keep a close watch on spam volumes and help
push continued deployment of filters and/or other solutions such
as Usenet 2, NNTP extensions etc.

As situations warrant, such as major upswings in spam in non-alt
groups, or group bombs, I will turn despamming back on, probably
focused on individual situations only. We need to be prepared
for spammers attempting to infest other areas now that at least
some of the pressure is off them.

I will be shutting my bot almost entirely off for the next week
or two. Time to relax for a bit, and the bot desperately needs some

Chris Lewis, CyberSheriff (CBC says I am, so it must be true!)

For more information on spam, see Fight spam, support Rep. Chris Smith's TCPA extension:


Go sell crazy somewhere else, we're full up here. ...Nicholson

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