Unsolicited "spam" mail -- one of the biggest
headaches gripping the Internet community -- now has cable operators reaching for the
Two weeks ago, subscribers to high-speed-data provider
@Home Network logged on to find an apologetic notice that described an unforeseen e-mail
glitch caused by a mischievous spammer.
Other high-speed-data services, like Time Warner Cable's
Road Runner, have also suffered spam problems. And cable operators that are active in
providing data services to their customers are adding this common Internet malady to their
list of operational issues, executives said last week.
@Home's spam snafu happened during the weekend of Feb. 20,
when an unknown Internet troublemaker sent a bulk mailing to about 1 million e-mail
addresses obtained from an outdated list of subscribers to America Online Inc., explained
Milo Medin, vice president of networks for @Home.
"These losers decided to pick
'firstname.lastname@example.org' as their return address," while electronically scrubbing
the mail clean of their own identity, Medin grumbled.
But because the spammer was working with an outdated e-mail
list, from which "about one-half" of the 1 million intended AOL recipients had
churned, @Home's mail servers quickly bogged down under the unanticipated heavy load of
"As a result, all of the mail [with bad addresses]
bounces back at us," Medin said. "We got several hundreds of thousands of
e-mails piling into our mail hubs."
@Home noticed the problem over the weekend, and it moved
quickly to install three new mail servers to help assuage the clogged mail queue.
"We didn't crash. The mail queues just got really
long, and it took a long time to process all of it -- to find out which was a bounce going
to a nonexistent address and terminate it," Medin said.
Because the spam came via AOL -- the biggest dial-up
provider of Internet services -- @Home couldn't simply block all mail with that
domain name, Medin explained.
The spam glut created about a 12-hour delay in @Home's
e-mail delivery, and some messages were ultimately delivered out of sequence.
Executives with Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc.,
@Home's partners, said they became aware of the glitch when they saw the notification on
@Home's log-in screen, but otherwise, they experienced no customer-service problems.
"This really falls into @Home's camp, and they'll
be our point of contact on issues like this," because @Home provides its partners
with its e-mail servers, said Jay Rolls, director of multimedia technologies for Cox.
But operators are aware that spam will become a regular
nuisance on their list of operational issues, especially as high-speed-data services over
cable networks become more pervasive.
"Spam is just a very bad situation that we have with
the Internet," said Frank Kist, vice president of network technologies for Road
Kist said that so far, Road Runner hasn't experienced
a spam snafu as large as @Home's, but he acknowledged that spam "is an
Internet-community problem and, as such, it's an operational situation that we'll
have to deal with, just like every other Internet-service provider out there."
Kist explained three types of e-mail problems: when a
subscriber spams others, when an outsider spams subscribers and when an outsider tries to
"relay" spam off of another ISP's servers.
"Relay spam" is what @Home experienced -- when
unsolicited, bulk mail is sent by an anonymous spammer to an ISP's server, with
instructions to deliver it.
"The SNMP [simple network-management protocol] server
sends a message that says, 'Please deliver this,'" Kist explained. "So
all of the work is done on another company's server." He said Road Runner turned off
the relay option on its network of mail servers.
Another form of spam comes from bulk mail with large
attachments of 50 megabytes or more, "which ties up disk space and CPU
[central-processing-unit] resources, because the servers have to replicate the attached
mail, and it's large," Kist said.
Rolls said he's optimistic that broadband subscribers will
think twice before they violate spam rules, because cable is their only choice for a
"ISPs are a dime a dozen -- you can sign up, do some
spam business, abuse your privileges, get kicked off and go to somebody else," Rolls
explained. "Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but what I hope holds true is that with
broadband, you only have one shot at it -- if you goof up, you've lost your broadband
Medin wants laws so that spammers are faced with a
financial disincentive to spam -- much like senders of unsolicited fax junk mail.
"Without laws, there is no legal way to stop
this," Medin said.